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Our Editorial: Wayne Co. should make a jail deal

The Detroit News

Looking at the numbers, playing hard to get seems to have paid off for Wayne County in its bargaining over the future of the unfinished jail site.

The latest bids were released Thursday from Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures and Walsh Construction, the only building firm to express interest in finishing the jail.

Both plans would give the county a new jail, for roughly the same money, but the Gilbert offer adds sweeteners that County Executive Warren Evans will find hard to refuse.

Gilbert is committing to build a 2,280-bed jail, as well as a replacement for the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and the current juvenile detention center, all located off Gratiot north of Greektown.

The jail would be large enough for the county to shut down its other two lock-ups in the neighborhood, and a third in Hamtramck.

Total cost is $520 million, with the county obliged to cover a maximum of $380 million and Rock Ventures contributing $140 million.

Walsh, by contrast, would construct a 2,200-bed jail and renovate Murphy, a 50-year-old facility that has badly deteriorated, for $317 million.

The cost difference between the two bids for the county is $63 million. But for that money Gilbert is offering an all new criminal justice complex on Warren Avenue at I-75, a site owned by the city of Detroit.

Over time, Wayne County will have to replace Murphy and the juvenile facility, and the cost likely will be much greater.

Rock Ventures’ new offer is $20 million richer than Gilbert’s original bid, and the company has also backed away from a demand to share future operational cost savings from innovations at the new jail.

Now, Gilbert is asking only to share savings generated by bringing the project in under the stated price tag, and to get the parking concession for county-owned lots and structures in the neighborhood.

Wayne County would be held harmless for any construction cost overruns, which are almost guaranteed in a public works project.

In addition, a downtown district now populated by dreary municipal buildings likely will get a new major league soccer stadium, housing, offices and entertainment venues that will generate tax dollars for both the city and the county.

The Rock Ventures offer looks like a terrific deal for county taxpayers who were shafted when former County Executive Robert Ficano bungled the original jail construction, which was halted after posting more than $100 million in added costs.

Spending money to finish a jail that should have been up and operating by now, and paid for, is a bitter bill for taxpayers to swallow. But it has to be done.

The Gilbert plan recognizes the potential of the neighborhood, and fits into the overall revival of downtown Detroit. And it also allows the county to walk away at least with something more to show for its money.

Evans and the county commission has to vet the details, of course — and carefully. But unless there is something we’re not seeing at the moment, Wayne County should take this deal and run.