Howes: Reality, vision for Wayne jail site set to clash

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Dan Gilbert’s downtown nightmare is moving one step closer to reality.

After several years of neglect, the failed Wayne County jail site has been deemed ready for construction to resume — the clearest sign yet that the high-stakes battle over a prime gateway to downtown Detroit is likely to move soon into its final phase.

County Executive Warren Evans is playing it straight. He says he’s prepared to move ahead on the Gratiot site because abandoning the half-built hulk, securing another location, building a new jail, a new county juvenile detention facility and a criminal court elsewhere would cost dramatically more than his $250 million budget.

“I think it’s starting to sink in,” Evans said in an interview Thursday. “It’s pretty clear they’re still working on” an alternative proposal. “It’s just not clear to me it will be substantial enough.”

All of which means one thing: the next move belongs to moguls Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., and Pistons owner Tom Gores. The would-be partners in a billion-dollar downtown entertainment district, complete with a Major League Soccer stadium, remain hopeful they can do a deal — and bridge the financial gap — that would kill forever the jail project on Gratiot.

That would enable Gilbert & Gores to move ahead with their blockbuster development, to realize a mixed-use entertainment district on the eastern edge of downtown, and to cement Detroit’s reputation as the most consolidated big-league sports town in the country.

That’s not insignificant. The Ilitch family’s $1.2 billion District Detroit development, anchored by a new Red Wings arena west of Woodward at I-75, would connect the northern edge of downtown with the southern reaches of Midtown.

Adding the Gilbert & Gores project would create multiple entertainment pockets connected by the M-1 rail line and vibrant residential areas. It would complete year-round sports offerings. And it would potentially redirect the jail-and-court complex to another site for redevelopment.

Evans gets it — the economic jolt for downtown, the increased tax revenue, the infusion of people. He would gladly take the concept being pushed by Gilbert & Gores. The trouble is that he’s still not sure the two wealthy business leaders-turned-sports impresarios will find a way to realize their vision and make the county whole in the process.

Doing so would enable Evans to declare victory over an ugly financial mess he did not create. Credit for that goes to his predecessor, Bob Ficano, whose stewardship of county finances culminated in his ouster in the Democratic primary and, second, federal probes into his administration and, third, state oversight of the county’s books.

The state Treasury’s oversight of Wayne County’s books is now over; Ficano, a failed candidate for Circuit Court judge, once again is a private citizen; and Evans continues to balance fiscal chops responsible to taxpayers with faint hope that Gilbert & Gores still can make an offer on the Gratiot site that he could sell to the public with conviction.

The clock is decidedly ticking. Because the county is poised to issue a “Requests for Proposal” that would require would-be bidders to spend money and staff time preparing bids, Evans is signaling that once so-called RFPs go out, the county would not entertain other offers for the site, even from Gilbert & Gores.

Once the RFP is issued, Evans said in a separate statement, “It’ll be full speed ahead on the Gratiot site.”

Getting there will not be easy. The site, mired in negative publicity, is cleared for construction to continue, but picking up where predecessors left off is not without risk. Chief among them is assuming responsibility for cost overruns and, second, negotiating a political minefield to conclude a project unpopular with many, especially the downtown business community.

The Gilbert & Gores team is not giving up. It continues to push for answers for three questions, each a precursor to making an acceptable counter-proposal to the county. First, what would it cost to complete the jail complex on the existing site? Second, what would it cost to build on a new site — and what would be the difference between the two?

And, third, what would be the long-term economic impact to the city and the county if the entertainment complex envisioned by Gilbert & Gores is realized? The numbers would likely be big enough, but maybe not soon enough to be politically palatable .

“We’re working hard,” said Matthew Cullen, principal of the Gilbert-affiliated Rock Ventures LLC, “and we still believe we can make it happen.” We’ll see.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.