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Wayne Co. panel gives preliminary OK to vet jail pitch

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroit — Wayne County Commissioners took a step Wednesday toward approving the county executive’s recommendations to help evaluate billionaire Dan Gilbert’s proposal to build a new criminal justice center in exchange for the site of the half-built jail in Greektown.

Meeting as a committee of the whole, the 15-member county commission gave the go-ahead to forward Wayne County Executive Warren Evans’ five recommendations to the full board for a vote. The full board is scheduled to meet Thursday.

“We have on the agenda a series of contracts submitted by the administration ... to engage companies to help do a deeper dive into the details of the proposal,” said Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak, D-Dearborn, before the vote. “We’re months away from considering final approval of the proposal, but we need to have a basic discussion about it as a body at a public meeting.”

Evans submitted his recommendations, which aim to help his administration and the commission vet the proposal presented by Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC last week, to county commissioners on Monday.

Deputy Wayne County Executive Richard Kaufman, county CFO Tony Saunders, county Corporation Counsel Zenna Elhasan and Rock Ventures Principal Matt Cullen were at the meeting to answer commissioners’ questions.

Before the vote, commissioners raised several questions about Rock Ventures’ proposal.

Among them were why did it take so long for the developer to present its proposal, whether the county could face tax penalties on bonds for the existing jail project if it builds on another site and money the county would give the developer from any operational savings generated by the new buildings.

“This is more like an outline of an offer than an actual proposal,” Commissioner Ilona Varga, D-Lincoln Park, told Cullen. “That’s how I consider it. It’s not that detailed.”

Cullen said the company didn’t want to submit a proposal until it knew exactly what the county wanted for the jail, which wasn’t nailed down until the county’s consultant on the project, Carter Goble Associates LLC, or CGL, came along.

“We were asked by (then-County Executive Bob) Ficano to come up with a project for the site, but there was no scope to it because of the way the project ended,” he said. “There wasn’t a scope for us to respond to until CGL was engaged. We’ve always needed to be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison.”

Under Rock Ventures’ plan, it offers to build the county a new 1,600-bed jail, a juvenile detention facility and courtrooms on eight acres east of the Interstate 75 service drive between East Forest and East Warren. The land is already owned by the county.

In exchange for the new criminal justice center, Rock Ventures wants the 15.5 acre site of the county’s unfinished jail project at Gratiot near I-375 in the city’s Greektown district. The company, in partnership with Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, wants the unfinished jail site to build a $1 billion mixed-use development anchored by a 23,000-seat soccer stadium.

Cullen told commissioners the company is committed to developing the unfinished jail site whether the partnership is given a Major League Soccer franchise.

Its proposal also offers to charge the county $300 million for a project the firm estimates would cost some $420 million to complete.

To vet Rock Ventures’ proposal, Evans recommended the county commission:

■ 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.

■ Modify the contract with 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.

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

“We have to see if this proposal gives us what we need,” Kaufman told commissioners.

Wayne County began construction on its $220 million jail project in 2011, under Ficano. The 2,000-bed project, across the street from the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, was stopped 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 $1.6 million a month, county officials estimate.

The county has planned to finish the jail on Gratiot, which will cost about $250 million. Officials have said the county will seek bonds to pay to complete the project. The county also has about $50 million in unspent bonds from the previous project.

Kaufman told commissioners construction of the jail under the county’s plan could likely begin in the fall and take 30-36 months.

Cullen said construction under Rock Ventures plan could be done in a similar time frame.

Kaufman also reiterated Evans’ position the county is weighing its plan to complete the unfinished jail and the Rock Ventures’ proposal.

“The administration strongly believes going down two tracks simultaneously is absolutely necessary,” he said. “(Rock Ventures’ proposal) may be a very good deal for the county. If not, we’ll still be on track to finish the jail on Gratiot.”

cramirez@detroitnews.com