Howes: Jail land swap a ‘win’ for city, county, Gilbert

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In the complicated soap opera starring the derelict Wayne County Jail, Mayor Mike Duggan has at least one thing right: swapping land to make the project viable “is a win-win.”

For the city, which claims redevelopment designs on the old American Motors Corp. headquarters on Plymouth Road. For the county, which needs a Detroit Department of Transportation site along Interstate 75 to enable Dan Gilbert’s plan to build a county criminal justice center.

And for Gilbert, the chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. His vision for a billion-dollar soccer-and-entertainment district on the half-finished jail site along Gratiot depends on giving county decision-makers a deal they can live with — if not one that makes county taxpayers financially whole.

That ain’t happening under any scenario envisioned by County Executive Warren Evans and his team. They’re smart enough to realize the $150 million already spent on the project by his predecessor, Bob Ficano, is gone. And there’s no chance of it being recouped — not from Gilbert, or Walsh Construction Co. or the Tooth Fairy.

Let that sink in, dear taxpayer, along with a reminder: Elections do, in fact, have consequences. Giving the hapless Ficano control of the county’s books is a gift that will keep on giving when it comes to his moribund jail project, and county taxpayers have no one but themselves to blame.

The alternative: turn financial adversity into opportunity, as Evans is doing. Understand that the county, city, entire community are more likely to derive greater financial benefit from commercial development on the eastern edge of downtown than they would by completing the jail on its present site.

Gilbert’s affiliated Rock Ventures LLC is proposing to build a $520 million criminal justice center on East Warren that would cost the county $380 million. It would include a 2,280-bed jail, a criminal courthouse, a juvenile detention facility and offices for the county prosecutor and county sheriff.

Government operations like a jail, juvenile justice facilities and a district court do not generate revenue for the surrounding locality. There would be no sales and property taxes to collect, and less business activity than from a district housing a Major League Soccer stadium and bars, restaurants and retail, office space and condos.

A new criminal justice center would generate costs necessary for functioning society, but they are costs nonetheless. Better to leverage desirable downtown real estate into generating revenue than to squander it on jails and courts, more an homage to Detroit’s ill-conceived past than a smarter direction for its future.

Detroit has a woeful history of poor land use — cement stacks and mostly abandoned industrial sites along the river, refineries hard by middle-class neighborhoods, scant residential housing along a desirable international waterway. Don’t compound those mistakes, still weighing on the city’s revival, with another one near Greektown.

Only the most willfully deluded fail to see the obvious: Detroit is getting its mojo back. City Hall works again in ways not seen in decades. Businesses large and small are reinvesting in the city, bringing capital and people to a place that badly needs both.

Gilbert’s expanding real estate empire is begetting more investment, including plans to “build up” for pretty much the first time since, what, the 1970s? The Ilitch family’s billion-dollar District Detroit is remaking the northwest corner of downtown, connecting it to Wayne State University, Midtown and the upper Cass Corridor.

Demand for downtown office space and housing is outstripping the market’s ability to supply either, a quandary this town hasn’t faced in decades. With the opening this month of Little Caesars Arena, Detroit boasts the most concentrated major sports hub in the nation.

Philanthropy continues its activist search for worthy projects to finance. And the city’s cornerstone cultural organizations — chiefly the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Institute of Arts — are more robust than they’ve been in years.

None of that is chamber-of-commerce puffery. It’s stone-cold reality, earned with hard work, financial risk, innovative thinking and a refusal to remain captive to Detroit’s culture of confrontation, mistrust and blame. The city and its surrounding county need more of all four, not less.

Making a smart call on the stalled jail is another giant step in the right direction for a city (and county) whose reinvention traces back to two words: leadership and teamwork. And the courage to exercise both, regularly.

(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.