One thing was rather clear at Monday morning’s press conference with Wayne County Executive Warren Evans; he doesn’t plan to put any kind of rush order on Rock Ventures CEO Dan Gilbert’s last-minute proposal to build a brand new Wayne County jail. Despite Gilbert’s public maneuverings to have his way – and have it now – by putting pressure on Evans to go along with his vision of building a soccer stadium on the unfinished Gratiot Avenue jail site and relocating the jail to Gilbert’s proposed new address up the street on East Forest, Evans made it plain that he intends to take his time and thoroughly vet Gilbert’s proposal to his satisfaction before arriving at any kind of decision. Currently, Evans said, in response to a reporter’s question, he views Gilbert’s recent offer as a “starting point in negotiations.”
Although Gilbert has said he would like to have an answer to his proposal by Feb. 20 (It was submitted last Monday on Feb. 6), Evans responded: “I appreciate that Dan Gilbert and the Rock team has submitted their proposal prior to our deadline, but there will not be enough time by the Feb. 20 date for us to be able to do the complete vetting that would be necessary. …There are some positives in the deal, but there are many questions that need to be answered.”
For example, “Is the estimated $420 million proposed to be spent by Rock adequate for the County’s needs? “We don’t know that yet. I personally have doubts that $420 million will be enough to build what we need. And I’m not talking about cost overruns. I’m talking about the amount of money needed to build the facility to truly meet our needs. If we determine that it’s going to take $500 million, what then?”
Meanwhile, the plan is to continue moving forward with Walsh Construction, the Chicago-based company that submitted the only viable bid for finishing the Gratiot site late last year. Walsh is scheduled to present its formal proposal to the County by May 3 of this year, after which the administration will review the proposal over the following two months (May/June) to decide on whether to enter into a design/build contract with Walsh. In light of Gilbert’s proposal, Evans plans to propose to the County Commissioners a stipend agreement of up to $500,000 for Walsh Construction that would basically serve as an insurance incentive to Walsh that they would be fairly and adequately compensated for their time and effort should Rock Ventures ultimately win out. But the stipend would only be paid if Walsh does not ultimately win the bid.
“We need to continue on both tracks. It’s the only prudent move for us. And while I want closure on this mess as badly as all of you do, we have to get it right,” said Evans. “This is a tremendously complex proposal. So is finishing a partially-built jail.”
“We don’t expect that the vetting of Rock’s proposal will take any longer than Walsh’s proposal to finish the RFP. We spent the better part of 18 months working to issue the RFP, and I have no intention of slowing down the process. Perhaps had Rock submitted an offer sooner, that might not have been the case. I’ve stated on many occasions I think finishing the Gratiot jail on the existing site is the most cost-effective option for us. I have yet to be persuaded otherwise.”
Wayne County Commission Chair Gary Woronchak, who was also present, weighed in with his own concerns.
“It’s an intriguing plan. I’m a little concerned that it’s coming so late in the game. Frankly, Rock has known all along that this was the direction we were going in. They could have given us this proposal a year ago, not when we were so far along with Walsh Construction.
“I think another point that’s missed is that we used Recovery Act bonds …and that could actually scuttle the whole thing” because those $200 million bonds were issued related to jail construction on the current Gratiot site. “If we build it somewhere else, there’s a possibility that the government, the IRS, could say we were in violation of the agreement with these bonds and we’d have to pay back ..the concessions that were granted because of it. It could be many millions of dollars that the County could be on the hook for, which would probably scuttle the whole deal.”
And then there is the issue of convenient access for the public, which is extremely important given the fact that the population most likely to be taking the most advantage of the jail site – wherever it winds up being located – are people much less likely to have access to cars, and there currently is not a convenient bus stop near the proposed new location.
“I think you have to look at things like bus routes, which we haven’t looked at yet, because jurors have to be able to [get to the location] to serve. ..We have to make it easy for the public to access the site,” said Woronchak.
On the plus side, both Evans and Woronchak said they thought it was good that Rock Ventures would cover any cost overruns of the project, and “the thought of three brand new facilities is enticing to most anyone” said Evans.
“I agree with Dan Gilbert that this is a 50-year decision, but it’s important to remember that we’re nearly a decade into this debacle that we inherited. It will continue to cost WC taxpayers for decades. Getting this right for them trumps any other concerns I have.”