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Does Dan Gilbert get whatever he wants?

Jack Lessenberry

Last Thursday, there were huge headlines that Dan Gilbert, the billionaire who has bought much of Detroit, wants to invest a billion dollars to build a major league soccer stadium and complex in the city’s downtown.

This was largely greeted with sort of the breathless excitement you’d expect when your team finally wins the World Series. There was a little mention of the fact that the land on which Gilbert wants to build his 25,000 seat stadium not only doesn’t belong to him, but in fact is part of Wayne County’s criminal justice complex.

What’s there now is the county courthouse, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, a modern juvenile detention facility, and the famous unfinished jail, which sits open to the elements. Construction was halted three years ago because of cost overruns during the famously incompetent Ficano regime.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who beat Bob Ficano and others in a landslide less than two years ago, has determined that the most sensible, economical and practical solution was to just finish the jail, and the county intends to seek bids this fall.

However, now the Quicken Loans and Rock Financial czar wants the land. There’s a sort of assumption in Detroit these days that, as one woman I know put it, “whatever Dan Gilbert wants, Dan Gilbert gets.” That seemed to color much of the media coverage.

But Evans doesn’t feel that way – and after talking with him for an hour, I came to see why. Evans has earned credibility. When he took office in January 2015, the county had huge budget deficits and health care liabilities.

There was talk of bankruptcy and emergency management. But Evans, a savvy lawyer in his own right, instead worked out a consent agreement with the state, and went to work on the financials. Evans learned his way around budgets as both Detroit police chief and Wayne County sheriff, and he knew the experts he should be consulting.

Today, the deficits are entirely gone, and health care is on a better footing. But criminal justice and finances are still important. When it comes to where to put the stadium and the jail, Warren Evans says, “I don’t have a dog in this fight” as far as location is concerned.

But he notes that the area has been a criminal justice site for a century, and that it makes sense to have criminal justice facilities centrally located and easily accessible.

And he does have one bias. He told me “(Gilbert’s) project can’t cost Wayne County taxpayers any more than continuing,” as they are now, and there can be no further delays.

Indications are that the county commissioners are with Evans on this. The only way he said he’d consider selling to Gilbert is if somehow the mortgage tycoon could pay for them to build a new jail, courthouse and state of the art juvenile facility elsewhere, and have it ready first. “Clearly that has got to cost more than us finishing this project. So whatever the difference is, that’s what they have to guarantee.”

You never know how negotiations may go. But Detroit is a city with vast vacant spaces, and destroying a criminal justice complex that works where it is may not make a lot of sense.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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