Reader Op-Ed: The Wayne County Jail Deal Just Isn’t Good Enough

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The hulk of an unfinished jail looms over Gratiot. Photo: Nick Hagen

As Wayne County’s decision on the jail project approaches, I penned the following as a response to John Gallagher’s column earlier this month in support of the plan.

We cannot say that Walsh Construction and Rock Ventures are two “competing proposals” for the same project. One is a construction firm responding to a request for proposals from a government-funded project whose bond financing is already in place. The other is a massive private company, the Wayne Enterprises of our real-life Gotham City, trying to use its influence to convince the government to hand over a prime piece of real estate.

Jails are public. Wayne County does not kowtow to marketing flash and private investment. It has a responsibility to deliver on basic government functions, with an adequate legal system at the very top of the list. Downtown offers the most obvious choice for the location of such a facility because of transportation. I’m not against the idea of moving it north, so long as Rock commits resources to ensuring the site is accessible via public transportation.

One concern is cost overruns. Rock Ventures covers them. Walsh doesn’t. Dan Gilbert is flush with cash, and uses that to handtie Wayne County into deals that are incredibly lucrative for him. This approach is not uncommon for the prince of the Quicken empire. Dan Gilbert doesn’t lobby for Detroit. He lobbies in Lansing for himself and what he owns – which happen to be some of the most significant properties and development assets in Detroit. That’s why the fail jail soccer stadium is such a joke that sheep have fallen for. That’s why the Hudson’s site proposal and the idea of “Build up, not out” in Detroit remains a fallacy. Gilbert’s motivation is not a “gateway to downtown.” This is property adjacent to property he already owns. The fail jail, if built as proposed, is potentially negative to his personal bottom line. It’s never about civic pride, it’s always about enriching himself.

In February, Dan Gilbert asked Wayne County for $300 million. In July, he asks for $380 million. This is his idea of an enhanced offer? Gilbert wrote that he is “enthused about the community benefits” such a project would provide, just months after he lobbied so hard to limit the power of community benefits agreements in the City of Detroit. When comparing the two proposals, it may be easy to reach the conclusion that the Walsh bid is too expensive, so the County should take the Gilbert deal. Rock knows this, which is why they upped the money, but upped even more on the assets they stand to gain. Really, this is a lowball offer.

The new 13-acre site is owned by the City of Detroit. If Rock Ventures is so dead-set on creating a “solution” in this instance, how can they not even broach the possibility of acquiring the property themselves, then transferring ownership to Wayne County, at no charge? Not only that, but Gilbert also threw in that he would expect the County to figure out the logistics of gaining control of the site by mid-September, as if our government should expedite the process of drastically altering the landscape of the city’s transportation infrastructure simply because he wants to start construction on his own timeline. Absolutely no thought is given to the fact that this proposal adds stress to DDOT, threatening the efficiency of basic city services.

In addition, since the new proposal moves the new Gilbert jail site to city-owned land, one would think that the previously proposed East Forest site, which is County-owned, would be off the table. But no, Rock now says they want to have ownership of that site too. And not only are they asking Wayne County to transfer it to private hands, they want to operate and a parking lot on the site! And profit off Detroiters having to visit the shiny new legal campus. They also ask the County to implement measures to support and encourage County employees to park in this lot, at which Rock would charge a $110 monthly rate.

Having said all that, Warren Evans still has the chance to take advantage of Dan Gilbert’s ambition and innovation. Wayne County can do this deal, but it needs the state’s wealthiest citizen to make some reasonable concessions: agree to cover some of the cost if the bond financing falls through due to this relocation. In early July, John Gallagher told Warren Evans to “Do the deal.” Today, I offer my two cents: Counter. Gilbert wants this site. He wants to own a big corner of downtown. He wants to connect his Greektown assets with new these new potential projects. And he has the money on hand to make it happen.

Mr. Evans, I recommend this approach to the Rock Ventures proposal: Rock Ventures, as far as the Forest site is concerned, you can make an offer if you want to buy it from us. For now, we own it and we’re not looking to just give it away. Second, you must offer some assistance to help facilitate DDOT moving to a new facility. Lastly, we need you to cover more than $140 million of the $520 million pricetag. Split the cost with the County, 50/50. You get your downtown real estate, the citizens get their public facilities, and no one gets played.

Mr. Gallagher told us the choice is clear. I say clarity is in the eye of the beholder.

Editor’s Note: This is a reader submitted editorial and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Daily Detroit or our team. Daily Detroit aims to be a platform for community conversation. If you’d like to join that conversation, get in touch at our submission page.

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