The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted to move forward with the sale of the Wapato Detention Facility in North Portland. Wapato is a 155,440-square-foot jail some county employees referred to as an "albatross" that has strained county resources since it was completed in 2004.
"It's a monument to many mistakes back in the day," former commissioner Judy Shiprack told commissioners ahead of the vote."It will never spark joy. Get rid of it. Wapato was a mistake that you inherited."
The county sold the jail to Kehoe Northwest Properties, LLC for $10.8 million. The facility will be used as a medical device distribution center.
The sale lifts a $300,000-a-year burden off the back of a county that has tried to find another use for a facility it has continued to pay to maintain.
The board also voted to earmark funds from the sale for efforts to deal with the county's housing crisis. The funds would go to county efforts to build 2,000 new units of supportive housing over the next 10 years, according to Denis Theriault, a communications coordinator with the county.
Ahead of the vote, critics of the sale say the county didn't do enough before concluding that turning the jail into a homeless shelter wasn't a viable option. Commissioner Loretta Smith, the single opposing vote, said the issue of turning the facility into a homeless shelter was a matter of political will, not zoning restrictions.
"I don’t consider it albatross or white elephant," Smith said. "I consider it an opportunity facility."
In 1996, in the midst of the nationwide war on drugs, Multnomah County voters approved a $46 million public safety bond measure to build the jail. The state chipped in an additional $12 million, but there was no mechanism in place to maintain the jail’s finances.
The sheriff's office budget for the 2004 fiscal year acknowledged there were no funds for an operational budget for Wapato, which Bernie Giusto — the sheriff at the time who retired in 2008 — estimated would cost up to $10 million a year.
"If money is added back as part of the levy proposal or the requested MCCF/Farm budget, we will evaluate opening the facility," according to the budget.
The money never came.
The county also maintains it became more interested in crime prevention to reduce crime and recidivism, thus reducing its interest in running the jail.
In 2014, the county began exploring options to sell the facility while it continued to pay off bonds that prohibited it from selling the jail to a private owner until the payments were complete. Efforts remained largely unsuccessful until the county announced it’d received six offers for the jail in October this year.
“It is our conclusion the highest and best use of the property would be of the conversion of the facility into an industrial facility,” said Ken Eliott, the assistant county attorney.
Homeless advocates have continued to pitch the facility as the perfect location for a homeless shelter. But the county maintains land use restrictions prevent it from doing that, citing a September 2016 opinion issued by the Land Use Board of Appeals that prohibits such a shelter from existing in the industrial zone where the facility sits.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran said it was "disingenuous" to continue pitching the jail as a viable option for a homeless shelter. Meieran added the county conducted an extensive marketing effort to sell the jail, and no offers to use the jail as a homeless shelter were proposed.
This year, the county's Facilities and Property Management Division retained CBRE Portland, a commercial real estate firm, to handle a nationwide marketing effort to sell Wapato. Trevor Kafoury, county board chair Deborah Kafoury's cousin is the executive vice president of CBRE Portland. The county says the board of commissioners plays no role in supplier selection processes, including the process of hiring CBRE Portland to assist with the sale of Wapato.
"Chair Kafoury had no role in the competitive process to hire CBRE," said Denis Theriault — communications director for Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services — in an email. "Trevor Kafoury has no role in marketing county property or supervising the real estate professionals who do. Neither of them had a role in reviewing the offers or selecting Kehoe Northwest."