After spending nearly $100 million on the never-used jail, the county should reject selling it for $5 million

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Homer Williams and the nonprofit Harbor of Hope have thrown a wrench into plans to sell the never-opened Wapato jail by offering $7 million turn it into a homeless shelter.Multnomah County commissioners will be asked Thursday to proceed with a sale of the hulking white elephant known as Wapato jail.

Commissioners should say no to the $5 million deal now on the table, and instead take a much longer, harder look at how Wapato may yet be used for public benefit. This evaluation should include serious consideration of a proposal to convert it to a center to serve homeless individuals.

The amount of money taxpayers have paid to build, finance and maintain Wapato — which has been empty since its completion in 2004 — is approaching $100 million. Selling it to Portland developer Marty Kehoe for a mere $5 million would relieve the county of ongoing maintenance costs for the jail. And perhaps over the years, memories of the Wapato boondoggle would fade in the public's mind. But we don't believe — after 14 years of waiting — that Wapato should be sold for that price under the current circumstances.

To her credit, county Chair Deborah Kafoury, who inherited the vacant jail from previous administrations, has been trying to relieve the county of the Wapato burden. A number of proposed deals, however, have fallen through. Most recently, the county solicited bids for the 18-acre jail site, and Kehoe originally offered $10.8 million. But after further investigation of the property, he pulled back. He offered to pay $5 million if the county would accept it.

This is a poor process and leads to the obvious question of why the county doesn't go back to all the original bidders — some of whom offered at least as much as Kehoe did. For that reason alone, commissioners should reject this deal and reconsider their options.

Another potential buyer is the nonprofit Oregon Harbor of Hope, founded by developer Homer Williams. It is offering $7 million and wants to consider the site for a full-service campus for the homeless, roughly modeled after the original Harbor of Hope in San Antonio.

Kafoury and other county officials have raised a number of objections to using the 525-bed jail for the homeless. They say that the city of Portland's industrial zoning would prohibit a homeless facility. They argue that there is no transportation to the site, nor homeless services nearby. They say that isolating the homeless in a relatively remote location is a disservice to people who find themselves with no place to live. And, they point to the cost of operating such a facility.

These are not inconsequential issues. But are they insurmountable? As reported elsewhere in the Portland Tribune, the city has multiple options for dealing with the site's zoning and allowing this particular use. In the past, we have been strong advocates for preserving industrially zoned land for future jobs, but let's face it, this site already has a building designed as a jail on it. If the jail is converted to a warehouse, for example, the land use designation would be appropriate, but the number of jobs would be quite small.

If the city wants to allow a homeless center at Wapato, it will be able to do so legally.

As for transportation, at a minimum, existing bus service can be extended to the Wapato site, which is north of St. Johns. More generously, a shuttle system could be established to make regular runs from downtown Portland and other places where the homeless congregate.

Similarly, services for the homeless can be delivered at Wapato, or even relocated to the area. When it comes to the issue of isolating the homeless, since when is it more compassionate to allow people to sleep on hard, cold sidewalks than it is to provide shelter and a warm bed? Sometimes, Portlanders' acts of seeming kindness can have an unintentionally cruel result.

The matter of cost is the real key to whether Wapato ultimately could serve as a homeless campus. How much money would it take to operate such a facility, and how would the funding model work? How much would local governments — such as the city and county — need to pay on an annual basis, and how much could be raised through charitable sources? The Oregon Harbor of Hope should be allowed to conduct the $200,000 feasibility study it has offered to underwrite to help answer such questions.

Once those expenses are calculated, they must be weighed against the substantial but often hidden costs of Portland's proliferation of tent camping, which disrupts businesses, fosters drug- and alcohol-abuse problems, raises health and safety issues for the population at large, and generates calls to law enforcement.

Wapato would not be a cure-all for homelessness in Portland. However, it could provide a significant — and humane — step forward for an issue that has bedeviled this region for decades. No one yet knows if it is feasible to transform the jail and its surrounding property into a campus for the homeless, but they will never find out if county commissioners buckle to pressure to sell the land now for a pittance.

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