Should Dan Gilbert get his way? | Politics & Prejudices 

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Dan Gilbert is a self-made and very rich man who has been buying up a lot of Detroit during the past few years, mostly at bargain prices. This has helped make him richer.

This means, some seem to believe, that Detroit, Wayne County, and the universe should give him whatever he wants, in the fond hope he may be Our Savior. (Previous potential saviors, including St. Kwame, turned out to be false prophets, or were driven away by demons, like St. Pete Karmanos.)

But St. Gilbert I is still widely worshipped, as was reflected when the Quicken Loan God announced two weeks ago that he wants to invest $1 billion to build a Major League Soccer complex, including a hotel and restaurants, in Detroit.

This provoked huge headlines. True, some of the stories did mention that he doesn't own the place where he wants to build his soccer wonderland. Matter of fact, it is the site of the Wayne County justice complex, which includes the courthouse, aka the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, what County Executive Warren Evans calls the county's "state-of-the-art" juvenile detention center, and the famous unfinished jail.

Several months ago, Evans determined that the cheapest and most sensible thing to do was finish the jail — which I have long thought made the most sense. Construction, you may remember, was halted three years ago because of vast cost overruns during the famously incompetent Ficano regime.

The county has already sunk more than $150 million into the hole that sits on Gratiot, nakedly exposed to the elements. Since construction was stopped three years ago, the county has been paying more than $1.2 million a month to maintain the site and service the bonds floated to cover the costs.

A new jail is needed, however, and it makes perfect sense to have it next to the rest of the justice facilities.

Dan Gilbert did make an offer of a paltry $50 million for the site in 2013, which the county sensibly rejected.

Selling the land to him now would seem to make even less sense. The county doesn't only need a new jail — it needs a courthouse and a juvenile facility, and it needs them together and close to the urban center. Team Gilbert seems to think the county can just stick them out on the site of the old Mound Road correctional facility, more than 10 miles from downtown.

That doesn't make a lot of sense to me; criminal justice facilities need to be easily accessible to all.

But when I mentioned this to a few normally savvy people, they responded by saying, as one woman did: "These days, whatever Dan Gilbert wants, Dan Gilbert gets."

True? This time ... maybe not.

The morning after the Big Announce, I went off to see Warren Evans, who was elected Wayne County executive in a landslide a year-and-a-half ago. Evans is a skilled horseman in private life, and this is definitely not his first rodeo.

Not only is he an attorney himself, he's been both Detroit police chief and Wayne County sheriff, and in those jobs won praise for being budget-savvy.

He's also won enormous respect for the job he's done with Michigan's largest county since taking office in January 2015. When he took over, the county was hemorrhaging cash, and there was serious talk of both bankruptcy and emergency management.

Evans immediately quieted that down; worked out a consent agreement with the state, set to work eliminating the deficits ­— and did so. The structural deficit of $52 million a year he inherited has been entirely eliminated. So has the overall annual deficit of roughly $100 million.

Wayne County also had health care liabilities of something like $1.3 billion and a $900 million shortfall in the pension fund. Evans managed to tame the health care monster to an extent ­— and he and his executive staff decided they'd take a haircut in terms of coverage if everyone else has to.

Nobody is talking about an emergency manager for the county now. "We've got work to do, but we're light-years ahead of where we were," he told me in his comfortable, but hardly plush, office in the magnificent Guardian Building.

"We have a $5 million surplus," he told me, but added candidly, that's insignificant "when you've got a jail that's going to cost you hundreds of millions to finish."

His plan, as of now, is to call for bids in early fall, select someone rapidly, and get work started. How long will it take?

"I'm not as concerned about when it is done as to when it is started," Evans told me. "I don't want to go through another winter with the site open and deteriorating."

When that deal is signed, he says there's no turning back. Wayne County's CEO recently talked to the bond rating service Moody's. Wayne County's securities are still seen as junk bonds.

"But with a favorable outlook. And once we have the jail deal done, I anticipate an uptick," Evans said.

Yet what about Gilbert's desire for the land?

Warren Evans claimed (not entirely convincingly) that he is neutral when it comes to where to locate the jail. "I don't have a dog in this fight," he said, and "having soccer here would be great."

But then reality kicks in. He says of the half-finished jail on Gratiot that the site "is a logical place for it. I am not one of those people who think it is an entertainment district. It's been a criminal justice site for 100 years."

Still, he says he would be willing to listen to Gilbert's plea to sell him the land, except that ... "the two things that aren't negotiable, in my mind, is that this project ­­­— which would require the relocation of the jail ­— can't cost Wayne County taxpayers any more than continuing on the path we are on" to finish it. "And No. 2 — the time frame has to be the same." No making people wait even longer.

Requiring Gilbert to come up with a new courthouse, juvenile justice facility, and jail somewhere else for the same price, or less, sounds impossible.

"Look," Evans told me, "clearly, building a jail, building a courthouse, and a new juvenile detention facility has got to cost more than us finishing the project. "

But if Gilbert wants to and wants to pay, Warren Evans will listen, with one caveat: "Whatever the difference is in time and money, that's what they have to guarantee."

Most of the county commissioners who have spoken up on the project tend to agree with Evans. There's another wrinkle too, that the initial stories overlooked:

There's absolutely no guarantee Major League Soccer would catch on in Detroit, let alone a presumably mediocre expansion team playing in a mediocre league. "Major League Soccer won't work here. It won't sell here. There's no history, no tradition," Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp wrote.

I think he's right; they have, you may remember, tried bringing big-time professional soccer to Detroit before ­— remember the Detroit Cougars? Didn't think so.

Things may well be different now, and Detroit has a lot more citizens from countries where soccer is the sport.

So here's what I suggest. Leave the jail alone. Downtown is doing fine on its present path to revitalization.

But neighborhoods elsewhere badly need help. So let's help Gilbert build a soccer world over in Southwest Detroit, within easy access to Dearborn.

Yes, I know Danny G. said "there is no Plan B," and that he had to have his stadium where he wanted it, or there'd be nothing. Spoiled rich kids always say things like that, but they tend to come around when they really want to play.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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