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Wayne Co. exec wants ‘analysis’ of jail options

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroit — Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said he’s finished his initial review of a developer’s proposal to build the county a new criminal justice center in exchange for the site of its unfinished jail project in Greektown but now wants a “deeper analysis” of the plan.

Unfinished Wayne County Jail site at Gratiot and I-375 in Detroit, Michigan on January 27, 2017. (The Detroit News/ Daniel Mears)

He said he’s submitted recommendations to the Wayne County Commission for its consideration that will aid in the vetting process, including tapping consultants to review the plan.

Rock Ventures LLC, which is owned by billionaire Dan Gilbert, offered the county a deal last week to build a new 1,600-bed jail, a juvenile detention facility and courtrooms on an eight-acre site east of the Interstate 75 service drive between East Forest and East Warren in exchange for the 15.5 acre site at Gratiot near I-375 in the city’s Greektown district.

Read: Rock Ventures Wayne County Jail proposal

The 34-page proposal detailed plans to use the Greektown site for a $1 billion mixed-use development anchored by a 23,000-seat soccer stadium. Its proposal offers to charge the county $300 million for a project the firm estimates would cost some $420 million to complete.

“The Rock Ventures offer presents the county an option that warrants much deeper analysis before determining whether it’s the best course of action to finally address our jail issue,” Evans said during a news conference at the county’s offices in the Guardian Building. “I am instructing my team to take the same thoughtful and deliberate approach in vetting the offer as we did with the county’s fiscal crisis.”

Evans reiterated Monday the county will continue weighing both its plan to complete the unfinished jail and Gilbert’s proposal.

“We need to continue on both tracks,” he said. “It’s the only prudent move for us.”

He also said he has submitted to the county commission for its consideration five recommendations aimed at helping the county during the vetting process. They are:

■Approve an agreement with Walsh Construction to provide a stipend of up to $500,000 to prepare a proposal in response to the county’s request for proposals issued last week.

Chicago-based Walsh submitted a response to the county’s request for qualifications to finish the jail last year. Walsh’s response to the county’s request for a proposal on the project is expected in May, Evans said.

“We can’t expect Walsh to expend substantial time and resources to complete a proposal for finishing construction of the Gratiot jail while the county vets Rock Venture’s alternative offer without offering some reassurance that their time and commitment will be adequately compensated,” Evans said. “And quite frankly, today, we’re closer to building on Gratiot than we are at Rock’s proposed site.”

■Modify the contract with Carter Goble Associates LLC, or CGL, to allow for analysis of Rock Venture’s proposed jail site. The county hired the Columbia, South Carolina-based CGL in July to oversee the completion of the jail. At the time the county awarded the $3.9 million contract to CGL, it prohibited the firm from performing any work on any other jail site.

■Approve a contract of up to $59,440 with CGL to assist in vetting the programming and operations of the detention facilities provided in Rock Venture’s proposal.

■Approve a contract not to exceed $155,800 with the National Center for State Courts to assist in vetting and analyzing the programming of the court and sheriff and prosecutor offices provided in Rock Venture’s proposal. Based in Williamsburg, Virginia, the center is an independent, nonprofit court improvement organization.

“This is a tremendously complex proposal; so is finishing a partially built jail,” Evans said. “We will need the expertise of CGL and the (center) to make the best possible decision.”

■Approve a contract of up to $50,000 with the law firm of Zausmer, August and Caldwell to assist in legal issues related to the Rock Ventures proposal.

On Monday, Matt Cullen, principal of Rock Ventures, thanked Evans for making his recommendations to the county commission and looks forward to working with the county on the proposal.

“We thank Wayne County Executive Warren Evans for recommending the county commissioners consider our offer and appreciate that it will take time to complete the thoughtful analysis that’s needed,” Cullen said in a statement. “We respect the county’s process and look forward to working side-by-side with the county executive and the county commission. We have worked hard to develop and deliver to the county a proposal that, we believe, will be the best long-term outcome for the county and for the future of downtown Detroit.”

Wayne County Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak, D-Dearborn, said the 15-member panel will discuss Evans’ recommendations related to the Rock Ventures plan during a Committee of the Whole meeting on Wednesday. The committee, made up of all 15 commissioners, could then forward the measures to the full board for a vote during its regular meeting on Thursday.

He also said Rock Ventures’ plan is intriguing, but he wished it had more details on things like how big will the new courtrooms be and what materials will be used.

“The county executive has said we can finish where we’re at, all in, for $300 million,” he said. “The Rock proposal says $300 million-plus with operational savings credit. That’s more than $300 million, and it’s uncomfortably vague and undefined. I’m also a little concerned it’s come so late in the game.”

He also said there’s some question about whether the county would face a tax penalty on bonds for the existing jail project if it accepts Rock Ventures’ proposal.

“We used Recovery Act bonds for this,” Woronchak said. “If we build it somewhere else, there is a possibility the IRS could say we’re in violation of the bond sand have to pay back certain interest concessions because of it and the county could be on the hook for millions. There could be bond penalties and that could scuttle the whole thing with Rock.”

Construction on the $220 million county jail project began in 2011, under then-Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. The 2,000-bed project across the street from the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice was later halted in June 2013 after $100 million in overruns and charges of corruption.

About $151 million was spent in construction, acquisition and design of the jail, with much of the work done underground, according to officials.

The half-finished jail has sat unused at a cost of $1.3 million a month, county officials estimate.

In October, an engineering consultant assessed the unfinished jail’s condition and found no structural damage to the steel, concrete and masonry work that’s already been completed. Its inspection also revealed no issues of cracking or leaking joints with the installed sanitary and storm sewer lines.

Evans has maintained finishing the jail at its current site is in taxpayers’ best interest.

“I’ve stated on many occasions that I think finishing the jail on the existing site is the most cost-effective option for us,” he said Monday. “I’ve yet to be persuaded otherwise.”

He also said the county will seek bonds to pay for the completion of the jail project. He estimates it will cost about $250 million to finish. The county has about $50 million in unspent bonds from the previous jail project, according to the county executive.

“We have to get it right,” Evans said. “We’re at a critical point at Wayne County’s history. I agree with Dan Gilbert that this 50-year decision, but it’s important to remember we’re nearly a decade into a debacle we inherited that will continue to cost Wayne County taxpayers for decades.”

cramirez@detroitnews.com