First Round: One man's waste…

In these uncertain times First Round is often reminded by those much wiser (and richer) than a mere hack that adversity is often the mother of great private equity opportunities. We are, after all, an industry that thrives in periods of volatility (or what those in the trade refer to as ‘market dislocation’, which brings back traumatic memories of the time First Round slipped and jarred its shoulder trying to intercept a salmon at Pike Place Market).

After all, what is a problem for one person could well be a mighty opportunity for another.

Entrepreneur William Browning certainly thinks so. Browning, who owns Browning Productions and Entertainment, is seeking to take advantage of an unusual problem faced by New York and other states: what to do with all its disused prisons.

Crime reduction and an effort to divert low-level offenders away from incarceration has led to a decrease in inmates, meaning New York has closed 13 prisons since 2011. Three have been sold, with one redeveloped into an office park, though only one tenant has taken a spot so far. The prisons’ isolation – 11 of the 13 are in upstate New York – and potentially prohibitive repurposing costs have deterred many would-be developers.

Ideas for the former prisons range from a summer camp for Orthodox Jewish boys to manufacturing sites.

Browning has other ideas. He sees opportunity in keeping a prison’s razor-topped fencing and peeling paint for a tourist attraction. He envisions a complex where visitors could battle zombies or play superheroes.

“Zombies are something the market has become obsessed with. We’ll dedicate an entire section of the property to scenarios where people can use survival tactics to dominate the world during a zombie apocalypse,” he told The New York Times.

Taking an avant-garde approach to adapting prisons has been successful in New York City. In the Bronx, a non-profit owns the former Fulton Correctional Facility with plans to turn it into a community centre. In upscale Chelsea, meanwhile, a foundation is turning one into a women’s centre with an art gallery.

Big ideas are needed, then, for the reinvention of the big house.