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New owner: Wapato could be used for the homeless
Homer Williams will have the opportunity to turn never-used Wapato jail into a homeless services facility after all.
Developer Marty Kehoe, who just bought the unopened jail from Multnomah County for $5 million, has already sold control of it for an undisclosed sum.
The new investor is developer Jordan Schnitzer, who told the Portland Tribune he immediately called Williams to offer him the opportunity to lease it before anyone else. Williams is the cofounder of Oregon Harbor of Hope, a nonprofit organization that has been trying to open a homeless shelter and service center for two years. He had offered the county $7 million for North Portland property, dependent on the results of a feasibility study of the idea.
"Homer said that was the best news he'd heard all day," said Schnitzer. "Homer is a dreamer who deserves a chance to see if his idea will work."
Williams confirmed he talked to Schnitzer. The two men are scheduled to meet next week to discuss the offer further.
"I'm just gratified for the opportunity to be able to pursue it. Jordan's always been a great citizen and his offer is much appreciated," said Williams, adding that Schnitzer's call was a complete surprise.
Commissioner Loretta Smith, who has long supported using Wapato for the homeless, praised the turn of events.
"I commend the group of community leaders stepping up do to what Multnomah County has repeatedly refused to consider — turning the Wapato facility into a large scale shelter with on-site services for people experiencing homelessness. As we continue to close existing shelters in the middle of a housing and homelessness crisis, we need leaders willing to work with those in the community to push forward better solutions. It is my hope this is the beginning of a fresh start for better serving the homeless residents of Multnomah County," said Smith.
County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who has consistently opposed the idea of using Wapato to serve the homeless, reacted to the new by saying, "I have and will continue to welcome the involvement of the private sector in addressing critical needs in our community. We did look at using Wapato as a shelter. We didn't have the money to open Wapato then. We don't have the money now.
"My priority continues to be looking at every opportunity to get people off the street and into a safe place — utilizing the small shelters in the community that we know work.
"I remain committed to partnering with business leaders to open the Broadway Bridge shelter and hope that partnership and work will continue to truly make a difference in our community."
The "Broadway Bridge shelter" comments refers to a homeless navigation and shelter that Williams is working to open in the Pearl District.
Williams said the first thing he will do is conduct the feasibility study of the Wapato property.
"That should take about 90 days, and then we'll know what it would take to open the doors," said Williams.
According to Schnitzer, if Williams decides Wapato is not suitable for the homeless, the second option will be repurposing it. If that does not work, the last option is demolishing the jail and building one or more new industrial buildings on the property.
Schnitzer's investment, first reported Monday afternoon by Willamette Week, comes barely a week after the Multnomah County board agreed to sell the 18-acre North Portland industrial property for well under its appraised value. The board previously agreed to sell Wapato to Kehoe for $10.8 million last November. Kehoe withdrew that offer days before the sale was scheduled to close, however, and countered with the $5 million offer the board accepted.
Smith was the only board member to vote against both sales. She supported Williams at the April 19 hearing where a majority of the commissioners rejected the developer's offer, saying they should go with the buyer at hand.
Kehoe told the Portland Tribune that Schnitzer of Harsch Investments, a commercial real estate company, approached him a day or two before the deal closed.
If the homeless facility possiblity does not pan out, he said, the plan for now is to rent out the existing building while erecting warehouses elsewhere on the property, up to as much as 300,000 square feet. But because Kehoe is now merely a minority investor, Schnitzer will manage and market the property.
Before the deal closed Kehoe had rejected claims that he planned to flip it. And he said that was sincere.
"I didn't have any plans to flip it," he said, and "I didn't flip it. Jordan came in as a partner at the last minute. He's a great real estate investor. He brings management expertise which I don't' have. It just appeared to me to be a very good fit.
As for the jail, it will be rented for now if it is not used for the homeless. But "it eventually will most likely be demolished," Kehoe said.
To read a previous Portland Tribune story on the issue, go to https://portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/392983-285519-county-5-million-wapato-sale-final.
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