Speed of Wapato vote sparks complaints
After years of unsuccessful attempts to unload the political albatross that is the never-opened Wapato jail, Multnomah County officials are moving with unusual speed and scheduled a sale vote for Thursday, Nov. 9.
A little more than a week ago, the county announced that it had signed an Oct. 31 letter of intent to sell the property to Marty Kehoe, a local real estate developer. The Oregonian reported the empty jail would be used as a distribution center.
This past weekend, with no additional publicity, the county posted on its website an agenda showing that a proposed sale agreement for Wapato is scheduled to be approved Thursday by county commissioners.
But the sales agreement that is being voted on was not posted, as is customary. Asked why, a county spokeswoman on Tuesday said details of the proposed sale agreement of Wapato were not quite finalized. Eventually, she confirmed that Kehoe's offer, contained in the letter of intent, is for $10.8 million.
That's well above the $8.5 million appraised value of the property determined in 2014. And it would save the county an estimated $300,000 a year that it spends on upkeep on the never-opened jail, which has caused Chair Deborah Kafoury to make the sale of Wapato a priority.
Still, the speed of the county's push has prompted protests from those who would prefer to use the site as a shelter to address the Portland area's homeless problem, such as Commissioner Loretta Smith.
"I'm not sure why we are pushing this through so quickly," said Smith, who has said she is running for Portland City Council.
Smith said she hasn't been able to get information on the other bids or talk to Kehoe directly. "Particularly in light of the controversy around Wapato, we need to be really, really transparent," she said.
Similarly, Stuart Emmons, an architect who is considering a run for City Council, has asked the county to delay the vote, saying he still thinks it is better suited as a homeless shelter and service center.
Some observers dismiss the criticisms as coming from political candidates seeking headlines. But it's true that the current negotiation with Kehoe is being handled differently — and far more quickly — than in previous negotiations.
The county did not hold an executive session for the board to discuss the sale, as it has done in the past, Smith said. Such meetings are open to reporters, though the information shared there cannot be reported.
And the relative lack of public information released was in contrast with the previous two negotiations for the property, when the proposed buyer's offer and other details were public well in advance.
Kehoe praised the county's handling of the deal.
"It has been a very thorough process with multiple in-depth conversations with county representatives," he said. "I think the county has done a very good job handling a very troubled asset."
County officials noted the process has been underway for months.
"The county has engaged its constituents, stakeholders, other governmental agencies, and the public in discussion about uses or disposition of the Wapato property since 2005, when the board first passed a resolution to find a tenant or owner. Most recently, there was a (request for proposed buyers) in 2014 and most recently, the hiring of a real estate services firm to market the property nationally," Multnomah Communications Director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said in an email.
The 155,400-square-foot jail sits on 18.24 acres of industrial land in the Rivergate Industrial Park. It cost $58 million to build. An analysis by the Portland Tribune shows the total cost to date is more than $90 million, including interest and maintenance payments, and could exceed $105 million by the time all the bonds are finally paid off in 2030.
In May, the county retained a real estate firm, CBRE, to help market and sell surplus properties, including Wapato. The process was modeled after the city of Portland's, county officials said at the time.
However, the city's process has typically involved multiple public hearings, one to declare a building surplus and another to sell it.
The county's vote on Thursday is scheduled to declare Wapato surplus and sell it in one sitting.
The due-diligence period, in which the buyer is able to make sure the property is in good condition, has been an issue in past negotiations. For instance, the Wapato property has had leaks and other roof issues, prompting the county to hire a contractor to make repairs a year ago.
Kehoe said he would prefer a longer due-diligence period, but he understands the county's desire for closure on the Wapato saga.
You can read a related story at portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/377752-264079-county-wapato-offer-108-million.