Editorial: Don’t botch Wayne County jail decision


The Wayne County jail situation is a debacle. But rather than rushing to make decisions on the new jail’s future, county officials should take a deep breath and bring all the stakeholders together.

County Executive Bob Ficano is in a hurry to find a solution before his term is up, to reduce the harm to his legacy.

But these plans have to be about more than Ficano. Choosing how and where to proceed with the jail facility has implications for both the county and downtown Detroit.

County officials said last week that current cost estimates on a new county jail could add up to between $72 million and $351 million more than originally budgeted.

The new jail site, on Gratiot near Greektown, was controversial from the start, after county commissioners approved $300 million in bonds in 2011. Since June of 2013, the jail has remained half built, following estimates that put final costs significantly over budget at $391 million.

The county has looked into different options of how to proceed, ranging from finishing the jail on Gratiot, which has already used $157 million in bonds, or converting a state closed prison on Mound Road to a county jail and court facility.

Estimates to complete the Gratiot location are around $372 million. Crafting a criminal justice system at the Mound site, which would include a courthouse and juvenile detention facility, would cost up to $651 million.

While on paper the current jail project may appear the most cost-effective plan, that may not be what’s best for the city or county.

Some of the key stakeholders believe it’s not. Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, says putting a jail in such a prominent place, close to downtown, is a poor use of that land.

In December, Rock Ventures offered $50 million to purchase the 15.5-acre site of the unfinished jail.

“At the exact moment we finally have the momentum and scale to overcome decades of decline as well as the increasingly inaccurate image and perception of Detroit being a crime-ridden decaying city, it is unfathomable there is even a thought of continuing on with a project that would put a massive county jail at the foot of the entry to downtown,” Gilbert says.

County leaders should put together a task force that includes a variety of interested parties, including developers, county and state officials, the courts and Sheriff Benny Napoleon, and take some time to study different options and make a recommendation.

Ficano, who is pushing the county commission to complete the unfinished jail, would like to close this episode because it has become such a black eye on his tenure as county executive. The FBI is still investigating the unfinished jail project as part of its broader probe into his administration.

While Ficano may be right that the construction cost to do so is cheaper than the Mound complex, it doesn’t account for the jobs and tax dollars that would be generated if private development replaced the jail structure downtown.

Developers like Gilbert envision an eastern entrance to downtown that is a major retail and entertainment district.

That’s an option that should be fully explored before a final decision is made.