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From prison to farm?

Multnomah County commissioners considering developer's $9 million offer for Wapato Jail -

FILE PHOTO - The empty Wapato Jail in May 2013.A self-described real estate developer and renewable energy company owner named Garison Russo has offered to buy the Wapato Jail for $9 million to grow organic fruits and vegetables.

The offer has been discussed by members of the Multnomah County Commission at two executive sessions, one as recently as Tuesday afternoon, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Russo tells the Portland Tribune he is not yet prepared to discuss his offer, saying, “It is not a done deal.”

Online information about Russo and his businesses is limited. Previous news stories identify him as the founder of Humbolt Bay Energy, a renewable company registered in Nevada but operating out of Eureka, California. The company’s website provides no information about its structure, operations or projects. Nevada revoked its business license in 2013 for failing to provide a list of officers.

Russo has tried to become involved in two other government redevelopment plans in the region in the past without success.

In 2011, Russo bid to convert Centennial Mills in Portland into a showroom for his company. At the time, Russo said he was interested in moving the “global corporate headquarters” of his company to Portland. He was not the successful bidder.

The next year, Russo said he wanted to redevelop the former Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City for commercial and retail uses. Back then, Russo told the Clackamas Review that although the company was only a year old, he had extensive commercial real estate development experience. He was disqualified from bidding on the project because he did not post the required $200,000 deposit, the paper reported.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury has signed a non-binding letter of intent to purchase the property with Russo, which she describes as a first step in determining whether his offer is legitimate. A majority of the commission must approve the sale for it to go through.

Commissioner Loretta Smith is upset the proposal did not go through a formal Request for Proposal process that publicly declared the property for sale and solicited bids and concepts. She argues that would have produced more interest and potentially higher bids. County officials say there are several ways to sell surplus properties, including accepting unsolicited bids.

FILE PHOTO - Wapato Prison has never been used.Costly history

The Multnomah County Wapato Facility is a 155,400 square foot medium security jail situated on 18.24 acres of industrial-zoned land in the Rivergate Industrial District. Built to house 525 inmates, it was completed in 2004 but never opened because of declining crime rates and a lack of operating funds. It is commonly called the Wapato Jail or just Wapato.

Wapato cost $58.4 million to build, including the cost of the land. Construction was financed by bonds issued by the county and the State of Oregon. The county has paid more than $27 million in interest on the bonds so far, and is scheduled to pay approximately $9 million more by the time they mature in 15 years. Maintenance has averaged $400,000 a year for a total of $4.4 million.

The county had Wapato appraised earlier this year by Joe Sledzieski, a commercial property appraiser. He produced an appraisal on June 29, 2016, that included a history of Wapato and alternatives uses. It says the facility is worth approximately $20 million as a detention center and $8.5 million as an industrial building. The appraisal says demolishing Wapato would cost between $2 million and $2.8 million.

According to the appraisal, during the past eight years, Wapato has been rented 33 times for the filming of movies, commercials and TV shows. Interest in buying the property has come primarily from industrial manufacturers and, to a less extent, film and television producers. At least two large manufacturers have toured the facility.