Editorial: Time running short to move county jail
Just because the partially built Wayne County jail is in good enough condition to resume construction doesn’t mean the facility should be completed. Building the Gratiot Avenue jail on the east entrance to downtown Detroit has always been a poor decision, and remains so today.
The jail was started by former County Executive Robert Ficano, who allowed it to run up massive cost overruns before work was stopped.
Now QuickenLoan Chairman Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores have proposed building a soccer stadium on the site to house a major league team. Under their proposal, the jail, along with the surrounding courthouses, would be moved elsewhere.
The county is into the site for $151 million in construction costs — it was supposed to cost $220 million total to build — and it’s a long way from being done.
Estimates for finishing the project range up to an additional $200 million.
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans inherited the mess and is committed to getting a new jail built at the least expense to county taxpayers. That’s the right approach, since no matter what happens those taxpayers have already seen more than $100 million of their money squandered.
Even sitting idle, the disputed jail site is costing the county $1.2 million a month in utility, maintenance and security costs.
Before the final decision is made on whether to resume construction, Evans should make sure the other options for a new jail are fully exhausted.
The state has proposed converting the old Mound Road prison to a criminal justice complex. Other plans have suggested moving the jail to vacant land near Corktown and placing the courts in the abandoned Michigan Central Depot.
A study of the costs of the various options is expected at the first of the year.
Gilbert and Gores have argued the county should look beyond just the cost of moving the jail to a new site to also consider the tax revenue that a stadium/entertainment complex would generate for the county long-term. A commercial use of the property would also encourage spin-off development not likely to be generated by a jail.
In fact, having the jail in that neighborhood is likely to depress its chances of joining the downtown boom.
But it comes down to money. Evans knows the limited amount of cash the county has to work with. Even financing the additional bonds to complete the jail on the Gratiot site will present a challenge for a county that just emerged from a consent agreement with the state.
It is good news that the construction that’s already been done is structurally sound.
It would be better news if Gilbert, Gores and Evans could come up with a deal that provides the county with enough money to make moving the jail to a more suitable site feasible.