Howes: Wayne Co. jail choice is about bang for the buck

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In the continuing Wayne County jail saga, this much is clear: billionaire Dan Gilbert is willing to pay a lot to make sure the monument to incompetence is not finished on Gratiot near downtown.

That’s $100 million more, to be exact, under a new proposal publicly detailed Thursday. He’s upping the price-tag to $520 million, some $380 million of which would be shouldered by county taxpayers already fiscally abused by the previous Ficano administration’s mismanagement of the project.

To win the bidding and move to final negotiations, Gilbert’s plan emphasizes a revenue-producing parking lot over his “operational savings” concept that threatened to scuttle his earlier proposal so long as the impact to the county’s bottom line remained undefined.

The move amounts to a sop to the political sensitivities weighing on county commissioners. They know enough about contracts to anticipate that they cannot risk an open-ended line item that could come back to haunt them and their constituents once again.

Seen that jail movie before, and it didn’t end well. Some $150 million in taxpayer-backed bond money pumped into the early phases of the jail is gone, and it will not be recouped by any proposal from any developer at any time in the future. Call it the Ficano Legacy.

Still, the county needs to make a decision. Under County Executive Warren Evans, that’s likely to come as soon as the end of next month now that his team has a revised proposal from Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC unit to complement Walsh Construction Co.’s $318 million plan for the half-finished white elephant on the edge of Greektown.

For $380 million from the county, Gilbert proposes to build a new criminal justice complex on East Warren that would include a 2,280-bed jail, a criminal courthouse, a juvenile detention facility, offices for the county prosecutor and administrative offices for the sheriff.

Walsh’s larger of two proposals contemplates none of that. It would finish a 2,200-bed jail on an existing foundation it assumes to be structurally sound, and would partially renovate the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice at an additional cost to the county — all of which risks exposing county taxpayers to unforeseen cost overruns and potential litigation.

There are no more excuses for delaying a decision, no financial emergencies to hide behind. In a statement, Evans says he’s “tired of talk. I want the jail project resolved. The decision is solely about what’s best for Wayne County.”

Not entirely. Both proposed locations would have meaningful implications for the redevelopment of downtown and the city’s ability to attract — or not — a Major League Soccer franchise to what is becoming the most concentrated professional sports town in the nation.

It’s understandable for Evans to say this call is “solely” about “what’s best” for the county. But it’s about much more than that — the continuing revival of downtown, much of it privately financed; smarter land use in a city with a history of doing it poorly; maximizing the tax-revenue generating power of new investment to benefit the city, the county and the services they can provide.

A new county jail on the eastern edge of downtown, wedged between Greektown and Ford Field, would not generate much tax revenue, even if the people who work there would through payroll taxes. No sales tax; no property tax to benefit public education and municipal services.

There would be much less business activity on the edge of downtown, a diminution of economic impact the Gilbert-sponsored report from the University of Michigan’s Center for Sport and Policy pegs at some $2 billion should his stadium-and-entertainment district there be realized.

Hardly something to ignore, even if the number is inflated. All of that, and more, should rightly be part of a decision that both the city and the county, their taxpayers and their businesses, will live with for something like the next 30 years.

Detroit and its investors — Gilbert and the Ilitch family, foundations and Wayne State University, larger companies and smaller startups, the Riverfront Conservancy and the state Department of Natural Resources — are demonstrating a keen collective eye for reviving the city with respect for authenticity and its “bones.”

Finishing the aborted jail project where it now sits on Gratiot would be a glaring exception to that record of reinvention. In making the numbers work in the short term (defined here as terms of office for the county exec and the commission members), decision makers risk making the wrong call for the long term.

The big picture matters, too. Anyone who’s been paying attention since, oh, 2010 knows Gilbert & Co. generally get their way when it comes to redeveloping pieces of the city. It helps, of course, that so much of what they do is privately financed — so far, anyway.

This is about making a smart decision that will stand the test of time, not negotiating the political exigencies of the moment and calling it a day. Detroit has come too far for that.

(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.