August 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Wayne Co. in talks to buy back old digs

The historic Old Wayne County Building on Randolph has been vacant since December 2009. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Detroit — Wayne County officials are in talks to buy back the Old Wayne County Building, more than two years after leaving the landmark and suing its owners.

The private partnership that owns the century-old icon has approached the county with rough offers to end the suit and its countersuit. Two sources briefed on the proposals say they involve either a 20-year, lease-to-own plan for about $4 million a year or a purchase for $15 million or more.

Some commissioners briefed on the offers in recent weeks are skeptical, especially since the county left the building on Randolph in December 2009 and spent $57 million to buy and renovate the Guardian Building. The Old Wayne County Building has been vacant since.

"We just don't have the resources to buy that building back," said Commissioner Bernard Parker, D-Detroit.

The owners, the Old Wayne County Limited Partnership, acquired the building in the mid-1980s from the county, renovated it and charged the county some $100 million in rent and fees over the years.

Discussions about a purchase have been ongoing since 2010, and Deputy Executive Jeffrey Collins said no deal is imminent.

"It has to make financial sense," Collins said. "If it does and it's in the taxpayers' best interest, we'd be derelict not to pursue it or strongly consider it. What drives this will be the cost: bottom-line dollars."

He said no dollar amount has been set on a potential purchase price and the county has no definitive plans for using the building. It could house some county workers, many of whom work in satellite offices.

The lawsuits are in arbitration, and county sources said there are fears the county could lose. The partnership, led by Southfield developer Burton Farbman, alleged the county owes upwards of $5 million in back rent because it left equipment in the building after moving to the Guardian.

Commission Vice Chairwoman Alisha Bell, D-Detroit, said administration officials "would like to settle and that figure was thrown out there."

June West, a spokeswoman for county Executive Robert Ficano, said there is no pressure to buy the building to settle the case. Ficano's lawsuit alleges the county is owed more than $30 million from overcharges and interest on a promissory note from the 1980s.

"We filed our case against the partnership because we had a strong claim and we are confident we will prevail," West said.

She acknowledged maintenance and rehab costs are a hurdle. County officials recently toured the building and deemed it in good shape. Michael Layne, a spokesman for the partnership, did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

'It was a mistake'

The news comes the same week as commissioners learned Ficano may seek an additional $65 million because of cost overruns and plan changes to a $300 million jail under construction on Gratiot near Interstate 375.

The proposals are reviving debate about the purchase of the Guardian, which cost more than double the $27 million originally estimated to buy and rehab. Records involving the purchase were subpoenaed late last year by a grand jury investigating Ficano's administration.

"I still think it was a mistake to move into the Guardian Building, and I'd hate to think we'd have to spend any more money because of it," Parker said.

In court papers filed in 2010, the partnership alleged the county filed suit "as a smokescreen to hide its folly" with cost overruns at the Guardian.

With its 247-foot tower and signature chariot statues, the Old Wayne County Building is among city's most recognizable.

'A long road ahead'

The National Register of Historic Places described it as one of the "most sumptuous buildings in Michigan." Henry Ford worked in the building as a roads commissioner in 1906 and Clarence Darrow tried a case there.

West said, "There's a long road ahead and no master plan to the county taking the building back." But preservation is a motivation, she said.

"It's got tremendous historical significance," West added. "The county is committed to the downtown area and making sure it has some historical buildings. It's part of the texture of Detroit."

jkurth@detnews.com

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