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Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne proposes jail site in Garfield Heights

 garfield heights jail site
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
The proposed site for a new Cuyahoga County Jail in Garfield Heights.

Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne is proposing that the county build a new jail in the inner ring suburb of Garfield Heights, south of Cleveland.

In legislation submitted to council this week, he's also proposing extending a .25% sales tax created in 2007 to build or renovate county-owned facilities, including the Global Center for Health Innovation, soon to be part of the Huntington Convention Center but originally known as the Medical Mart.

The sales tax increase is scheduled to expire in 2027. Ronayne is proposing a 40 year extension. The legislation does not say the revenue would be used for the jail, but his predecessor, Armond Budish, propose extending the same tax to pay for the jail.

On Thursday, Ronayne also submitted legislation to county council to purchase the land.

If approved by council, the county would pay up to $38.7 million to Craig Realty Group - Cleveland, LLC for the 72 acre site in Garfield Heights. Funds would come from the general fund and some of the county's American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The proposed jail site is part of an 80-acre piece of available land, close to the intersection of Transportation Boulevard and I-480.

Ronayne said the size of the site makes a low-rise, campus-style jail possible.

“When you have jails stacked up into the sky, you lose that advantage of outdoor breathing space and natural light,” Ronayne said.

According to research from Ronayne’s office, the Garfield Heights site would not need major cleanup and is available from a single owner for up to $50 million.

“It’s a greenfield, which is a very, very difficult find here in Cuyahoga County, but we found it,” Ronayne said.

Ronayne opposed a different site proposed last year at Transport Road south of Downtown Cleveland because of it was contaminated by its previous use as an oil refinery.

A spokesperson for Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb did not say whether the mayor would support the new location.

“The mayor supports the most humane solutions for inmates in the jail and their families. We are working with stakeholders to determine next steps,” said spokesperson Marie Zickefoose.

Cleveland officials have in the past lobbied to keep the jail in the city, noting that most of the jail's population is Cleveland residents, the need for tax revenue from jobs at the facility and its location for family members to visit detainees.

City Council President Blaine Griffin declined to support the proposed site and said he wants to know how transport to and from the new jail will work and the impact on Cleveland’s tax revenue before he’ll support it.

“When you’re talking about taking upwards of 2,000 employees offline down in the central business district, that’s a huge deal. How is that going to impact us?” said Griffin. “Until I get some of those answers, I’m going to continue to advocate for it to be in Cleveland.”

Councilmembers Kevin Conwell and Richard Starr appeared at a recent Cuyahoga County Council meeting to lobby for a Cleveland site. Griffin said he’s been working with Cuyahoga County Council President Pernel Jones to make sure Ronayne’s proposal is closely scrutinized.

“The present jail is inhumane, and all of us want to have a jail that’s humane,” Griffin said. “Most of this is in the county’s purview. There may be other things that we can do, but right now this is going to be between the county executive and county council,” Griffin said.

Legislation to purchase the site will go to Cuyahoga County Council next week and the source of funding has not been made public.

Ronayne pointed out that more than a million people live in Cuyahoga County in 59 communities and the jail has to serve the entire county.

“We want to be accommodating in every which way to Cleveland,” Ronayne said. “But we think that this facility, first and foremost, is about the health and well-being of those that are in our custody.”

The Garfield Heights location was a finalist before the Transport Road site in Cleveland was proposed last year. Black Lives Matter Cleveland co-founder and Jail Coalition member Kareem Henton lobbied at that time against moving the jail to the suburb and spoke to Garfield Heights residents about some of the problems it would cause.

“It’s a big problem not just for the people who have to find their way there but also the people leaving there,” said Henton. “Downtown at least you have rapid bus lines, trains that go to other parts of the county. Now it’s going to be in an area not equipped to deal with people being released from jail.”

There’s a single bus stop on Transportation Boulevard near the Garfield Heights site. The jail would be about 10 miles from the current Justice Center in Downtown Cleveland, where the county’s courthouse is located. Most attorneys, including the public defender, have their offices near the Justice Center.

Henton predicts the courts would have to move nearer to the jail eventually.

Ronayne said the county is working with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority to add more service, including possibly dedicated service to the jail. He said Franklin County’s new jail includes an “exit room” with information and resources for people leaving jail.

“So people are equipped when they leave this facility to get to where they need to go and go home with the resources that help them with what they need,” Ronayne said.

The current proposal does not include details on the size of the jail or the location of a potential new courts building.

A site on Cleveland’s East Side, at Eddy Road and Kirby Avenue, was also considered, but contamination and possible obstacles to buying the land made it less desirable.

Updated: June 16, 2023 at 8:30 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include information about the extension of a sales tax and about the expected purchase price of the property.

June 13, 2023, 6:22 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from city council president Blaine Griffin.
Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.