There’s a new twist in the long saga of Wapato Jail, the Multnomah County facility that cost $58 million to build but has never been used to house inmates.
On Monday, Portland developer Homer Williams and his partner, Don Mazziotti, sent a letter to the county chair and offered to buy the facility on behalf of their nonprofit, Harbor Of Hope. They offered to pay $7 million in cash, minus the cost of maintenance, repairs and other unknown costs.
They said a group of private sector benefactors wishes to redevelop the Wapato facility "as a multi-service restoration campus to bring housing, training, employment and productivity to the guests of such a center,” Mazziotti wrote.
“We believe that such a facility would reduce the overall costs of meeting the needs of our houseless people.”
In a proposed purchase agreement, Harbor of Hope gave the county until April 19 to accept its offer.
The nonprofit offered $250,000 in refundable earnest money and asked for 120 days to conduct a feasibility study to determine if the jail can be re-purposed into a shelter.
Williams and Mazzotti, the former director of the Portland Development Commission, created Harbor of Hope last year. The nonprofit's board of directors includes David Bangsberg, the dean of the joint Oregon Health & Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health, and Bill Russell, the executive director of the Union Gospel Mission.
Harbor of Hope had previously attempted to lease a warehouse on city-owned industrial land in Northwest Portland for a similar purpose. The partners envisioned a 100-bed homeless shelter modeled after a Texas shelter and treatment facility, Haven of Hope, that Williams had visited.
The Portland Housing Bureau backed out of the deal after Harbor of Hope was unable to find a credible and experienced partner to operate the shelter and provide services there.
Harbor of Hope’s offer letter to Multnomah County does not elaborate on who would operate a shelter at the Wapato site.
The letter comes as the county board prepares to vote on whether to accept a significantly reduced offer from developer Marty Kehoe for the property.
Kehoe had initially offered $10.8 million for Wapato, which he planned to re-purpose as a distribution center. He repeatedly asked the county for extensions to the due diligence period.
Last week, the county announced that Kehoe had changed his offer to $5 million shortly before his deal expired. The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners said it would need to take a public vote before it could move forward with the Wapato sale.
On Tuesday, the county board met in an executive session to consult with their attorneys regarding Kehoe’s offer. Reporters are allowed to attend those sessions, but not to report on what was said.
After the session, the county released a letter written by Kehoe's attorney, Gregory Baum, dated March 23. The letter states that Kehoe "has determined that the contemplated acquisition is not economically viable," and wants to terminate the sale agreement and recover his $200,000 earnest money deposit.
The letter then states that Kehoe would be willing to reconsider terminating the sale if the county reduces the price to $5 million and gives him an exclusive option to buy it by April 20.
Kehoe declined to comment, citing the upcoming county vote. Williams said he hopes his vision of a shelter at the site prevails.
“I hope very sincerely that the vote goes in our favor," he said. "If it doesn’t, this problem is not going to go away.”
After the session, Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith, the sole board member who voted against pursuing the deal with Kehoe, said she believes the county’s agreement with Kehoe is terminated.
“This is a giveaway and there are other greater offers that can be secured,” she said.
Smith, who is running for a seat on the Portland City Council, held a press conference at Wapato on Monday, calling for the county to turn the facility into a homeless shelter.
“I think we need to take a look at this opportunity and make sure we don’t have another 88 people dying on our streets like we did last year. That’s unacceptable,” Smith said.
The jail does not have individual cells and has more than 500 beds. But numerous legal, zoning and logistical obstacles could make it difficult to operate a shelter there. The 18-acre site is in an isolated location on land zoned as heavy industrial. A decision last year by Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals held that mass shelters are prohibited on industrial land.
Jail facilities are permitted on industrial land as a conditional use.
In addition, a binding agreement the county signed with the Port of Portland also requires the property be maintained as an industrial zone.