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Wayne Co. Commission OKs steps to vet new jail pitch

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Wayne County Commissioners on Thursday approved the county executive’s recommendations to help evaluate billionaire Dan Gilbert’s proposal for a new county jail.

At its 10 a.m. meeting, the 15-member county commission signed off on contracts requested by Wayne County County Executive Warren Evans that aim to help officials vet the proposal made by Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC last week.

There was no discussion on the matter since commissioners gave their preliminary approval of the contracts during a meeting of the whole Wednesday.

After Thursday’s vote, Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak, D-Dearborn, said the proposal is intriguing enough to merit deeper analysis.

“We’re not doing this out of courtesy, we’re doing it because we think it might have viability,” he said.

“We have to examine very quickly whether the Rock Ventures proposal really can work. We don’t know that yet. We need the information that can be provided by the professionals we’ve approved contracts for today, to give us information we need to make the right decision.”

Evans praised the commission for taking the action.

“The commission’s actions were critical to the dual track approach that gives us the best opportunity to determine which option is the most cost-effective for taxpayers and best for the county,” the county executive said in a statement. “The commission’s leadership served us well through the county’s fiscal crisis, and it was evident again today.”

Thursday’s meeting was slightly delayed after a handful of protesters disrupted the meeting. The group chanted things like “Brick by brick, wall by wall, tear the jails down, free them all.” One of the protesters jumped on top of the podium the public uses to address the commission but was quickly made to get down.

At the end of the meeting, a couple of commissioners said they felt threatened by the protesters and asked the chairman to look into having Wayne County Sheriff’s Deputies attend meetings to prevent such incidents.

Woronchak said the commission will discuss if any additional security measures need to be taken.

“It’s too early to tell what measures will take,” he said.

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.

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

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.

On Monday, Evans said the proposal needed greater analysis and asked the commission to consider approving five actions on jail-related contracts to help in the effort.

On Thursday, the commission approved the actions he requested, which were:

■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 Columbia, South Carolina-based Carter Goble Associates LLC, or CGL, to allow for analysis of Rock Venture’s proposed jail site. The county hired CGL in July to oversee the completion of the jail on Gratiot. 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.

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.

Under the plan, the construction could begin in the fall and take 30-36 months, officials said.

On Wednesday, Rock Ventures officials told commissioners the company is committed to developing the unfinished jail site whether the partnership is given a Major League Soccer franchise.