PORTLAND -- If you build it, they will come. And if they don’t, you’re stuck with millions of dollars in construction costs.
That’s what happened to the $60 million Wapato Jail in Multnomah County. Built in 2004, it has never housed a single inmate. And now the county wants to unload it.
Currently, the county spends between $300,000 to $400,000 in tax dollars each year just in up-keep, even though the jail has never been used.
More: What to do with jail
The former Wapato Facility Commander, Bruce McCain, said it’s been a nightmare from the start.
“This really was a correctional field of dreams," McCain said. "It was, if you build it, the inmates will come.”
The county is now holding a Request for Interest to see if anyone wants to buy it. Two open houses for prospective buyers to tour the jail have already been held.
Ten years ago, correctional officers were eager to open the facility. It never happened and simply maintaining the facility is a headache.
“Facility management crews had to go through and do nothing but flush over 500 toilets, just to keep the O-rings wet,” McCain said.
The Request for Interest lasts until Wednesday. Potential buyers are welcomed. But with a price tag now estimated at $40 to $50 million price tag, buyers are not lining-up and critics are not optimistic they ever will.
Bruce McCain said he’s got a solution that will take care of two serious issues in Portland at once.
“We don't have enough homeless beds in Multnomah County," McCain said. "We need places that are warm, dry and safe for people to get off the street while we've got an empty 525 bed facility that has all of those things and more.”
McCain said he’s proposed turning the Wapato Jail into a homeless facility. The jail was built with an industrial kitchen, modern medical and dental facilities, counseling services, outside recreation and an open-air, dorm style floor plan. Perfect, McCain said, for an easy conversion to a homeless facility.
“If you look at all the services that the homeless social services are providing, Wapato was custom built for that,” McCain said.
Arguments against using the Wapato Jail as a homeless facility include fractured funding. Right now, there are many homeless services across Portland, many with their own funding sources. To use the Wapato Jail, all that non-profit money would have to be combined into one location.
Lobbying efforts for homeless services are pretty strong. There is also the stigma of putting homeless people into a jail. But McCain said the money being used now to maintain the facility could be used to retrofit and customize Wapato. Getting rid of the bars and locks and modernizing the open-air facility could turn it into an ideal place to accommodate the homeless, McCain believes.