The new Wayne County Jail under construction in June. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Wayne County officials plan to announce today they’ve selected Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures to redevelop a half-finished jail site downtown that was abandoned when costs skyrocketed, The Detroit News has learned.
Two sources with knowledge of the decision told The News that a committee of county officials who have met for several weeks to consider options have settled on Rock Ventures, which has been on a building acquisition spree, purchasing 40 buildings downtown. The proposal will be presented to county commissioners during a meeting at 2 p.m. today.
Rock Ventures was one of two finalists seeking to acquire the site at Gratiot and Madison as well as two nearby jails, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and a juvenile detention center. The company proposes a $500 million mixed-use development including hotels and retail. The other finalist was Triple Properties, which owns the Pontiac Silverdome and the Penobscot Building downtown.
Commission vice chairwoman Alisha Bell, D-Detroit, served on the seven-member review committee but declined to give details about the decision. Their goal is to present information to commissioners who would be responsible for approving the purchase.
“My colleagues always feel disrespected when they find out information in the paper,” said Bell, who added the proposal included a 90-day period for officials to vet details about the proposal.
Wayne County abandoned construction on the jail in June after construction estimates soared to $391 million. The proposal has been controversial from the start, with accusations of cronyism, poor planning and lax financial oversight. The FBI is investigating the project as part of its probe into the administration of County Executive Robert Ficano.
The county spent $131 million on the jail and was told another $23 million would be needed to secure the abandoned site. Financial details about the sale weren’t known Tuesday, but the county is expected to lose tens of millions of dollars on the project.
As part of the deal, county officials are expected to take the state up on its offer to lease the abandoned Mound Road Correctional Facility for $1 and convert it to a jail. The county has remaining bond money it could spend on renovations. Commissioners approved up to $300 million in bonds, while the county has issued about $200 million.
Rock Ventures officials did not return phone calls for comment on Tuesday. They have lobbied for months against constructing the jail in the downtown area, which has blossomed into an office and entertainment hub since construction of the jail began in fall 2011.
Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures, said in June that selling the jails and moving to Mound would be a “good solution for two neighborhoods.”
“Consolidating everything at Mound would be better for the city and county, and better for the public. There would be more parking and easier access,” he told The News in June.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy also is investigating the jail construction and has convened a one-person grand jury to investigate contracts associated with it. Her investigation made private a long-awaited report from the county’s auditor general, Willie Mayo, about what went wrong with the project.
Commissioners said they’ve been largely kept in the dark about expenditures and cost overruns.
“It’s hard to go forward without knowing what went wrong in the past,” said Commissioner Laura Cox, R-Livonia.
The jail also has become an issue for Sheriff Benny Napoleon’s campaign for mayor. He has said he had little involvement in the project, but his opponent, former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan, has pointed to statements from Napoleon calling the jail his “vision” and records showing his aides regularly attended planning meetings.