PORTLAND, Ore. — The Wapato Jail, built by Multnomah County in 2004 for $58 million and sold last year to Jordan Schnitzer for $5 million, will be torn down and turned into a warehouse, the developer announced Thursday morning.
Schnitzer had wanted to turn the facility into a homeless recovery center, but he said Thursday that no politician had come forward with a viable plan.
His role in the issue, he said, was that of a businessman trying to cover the costs of maintaining the property. He said he would have leased the facility for $1 to enable it to become a shelter.
"The greater tragedy" is that Wapato will be torn down while taxpayers still foot the bill for debt service on the bond sales for building it, he said.
To drive that point home, Schnitzer invited advocates of his viewpoint, including Kay Toran, head of the Volunteers of America Oregon and Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, to tell their versions of what could have been, had the building remained standing.
Schnitzer said demolition bids would be made final in about a month. The warehouse facility will include amenities that honor the preservation of wildlife.
After Toran and several of her employees, recovering addicts, spoke, Schnitzer offered to donate the building to the VOA if money for her vision of the future of the facility could quickly be realized.
Turner said he was "sickened" by the times he has come into the jail and realized its potential as a clearinghouse to help homeless.
Developer Homer Williams talked of creating a "wellness center" for the homeless at the Wapato site, similar to one he has developed downtown.
Schnitzer told the Business Journal in September that it was costing him about $50,000 a month to hold and maintain Wapato.
"I've said to everyone, 'We bought this for the land value, and if we can't figure out a program that benefits some segment of people in need, then we'll tear it down and build a warehouse," Schnitzer told KGW last November.
Soon after Schnitzer bought the jail, he gave several tours to various nonprofits, including Volunteers of America Oregon and the Homer Williams-led Oregon Harbor of Hope, the latter of which considered using it as a center for homeless services.
In deciding to sell the jail rather than turn it into a homeless center, Multnomah County officials cited in 2016 the high cost of simply keeping the building open.
Then county spokesman David Austin said at the time that the crux of the argument lies in the price tag attached to making the building basically functional, by turning on electricity and running water.
“You can’t just turn on a portion or one room. You have to turn on the whole system. What that adds up to is $136,000 a month to operate this,” he said.
That adds up to $1,632,000 per year.
Multnomah County spokesman Denis Theriault issued the following statement:
We’re glad that Jordan Schnitzer has reached the conclusion that he can’t afford to warehouse people in this remote jail. For us, it was never about the cost alone. Our community, our homeless service providers, business leaders like Business for a Better Portland, and most critically, people with lived experience, have told us it’s the wrong building in the wrong place.
Over the past four years, Multnomah County and the city of Portland working together have doubled the number of shelter beds in this community.
We’ve also helped house record numbers of people as we answer our housing affordability crisis. On any one night this year, we support 12,400 people in permanent housing, double the number from four years ago.
And we are well on the way to a significant expansion in supportive housing. The $18 million a year that Wapato supporters say they need to fund Wapato, will create 1,000 permanent homes with support services instead.
We’re not willing to take funding from those families getting rent assistance, from the people in apartments and shelters, and kick them to the street, just to throw good money after bad.
That’s why we’ve been pushing ahead with the strategies that we know work. We bought a building and parking lot downtown and are designing a behavioral health resource center - with the community at the table. This will provide the services for the very people who are experiencing chronic homelessness being discussed here.
We fully agree that treatment and services change lives. If Harbor of Hope wants to invest in treatment for people experiencing chronic homelessness, then we welcome them to join us and support the Downtown Behavioral Health Resource Center.