If all goes as commissioners hope, the new Oklahoma County Jail will be built north of Will Rogers World Airport near the intersection of South MacArthur Boulevard and Newcastle Road, an industrial area largely away from residential neighborhoods.
But even though the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners voted Monday to enter into discussions with the City of Oklahoma City regarding a pair of properties just north of Southwest 54th Street, the long-discussed project has not crossed the goal line just yet.
“There’s a multitude of things that have to be hashed out,” said District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan. “It’s not that we’re trying to be difficult or that the city is trying to be difficult.”
Tasked with site selection for the new jail, the Citizens Bond Oversight Advisory Board reviewed 18 properties, narrowing the options and presenting five to the Board of County Commissioners:
- the current jail property in downtown Oklahoma City;
- 71 acres of land located at 1901 E. Grand Blvd.;
- 53 Acres of land located at 6945 S. Post Road;
- 45 acres of land located on the south side of I-40 ¼ mile east of Douglas Blvd.;
- Up to 160 acres of land located at 5201 South Meridian Ave., just east of the county’s preferred choice.
On Tuesday, Maughan said the selected airport-adjacent location was one of the original 12 properties submitted for consideration. The proposal involved leasing the land to the county, but Maughan said potential purchase of the property remains a part of discussions, along with security reviews and federal agency involvement.
“We wanted to tell the city that we’re serious about really trying to work this out. We’re looking to receive their answer by next week,” Maughan said. “Perhaps it’s going to be too complicated with all the different agencies, and if so, they may decide to withdraw their offer. At least at that point we’ll have an answer and know that we’ll have to look for another option.”
Last year, Oklahoma County voters overwhelmingly approved up to $260 million in bonds to build a new jail and replace the current facility, which opened in the early 1990s and has been plagued with escapes, detainee deaths and other structural problems. The target date for the new jail’s opening is expected to be 2027 or 2028.
District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert said Monday’s decision by the county has been a long time coming.
“I am pleased the Airport Trust offered this property for the county’s consideration,” Blumert said in a statement. “I am excited to work with our partners at the City of Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma City Airport Trust to make this location a reality. The site selection process has taken most of 2023, and I am ready to move forward with the next step in this process.”
‘We’re not done yet’
A statement from Oklahoma City Department of Airports director Jeff Mulder appeared to tap the thrust reversers late Monday.
A 20-year airport CEO, Mulder highlighted “several contingencies” and challenges that remain for the site selection to be finalized.
“The airport provided the county with two parcels for lease for the proposed project with several contingencies that would need to be addressed, such as the requirement of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) review and compliance, a review of the zoning compatibility, and the requirement for a Fair Market Value lease rate,” Mulder said in a statement. “These issues are under review and have not been resolved at this time.”
Steve Mason, who chaired the Citizens Bond Oversight Advisory Board, said Mulder’s statement is a realistic assessment of what lies ahead.
“We aren’t done yet,” Mason said Tuesday. “The press release that Mr. Mulder sent out is fair, and it’s accurate. It’s similar to buying a house. I might find a house I really want, but then you start getting into inspections and negotiations, and there are things to sort through. He outlined some issues including zoning and the cost and the FAA, which are all things that will have to be addressed. There is a lot to sort through.”
Still, Mason is confident those issues will be resolved.
“I think that the city and the county are going to sit together earnestly and attempt to work through those issues,” Mason said. “What helps is I think the City of OKC is motivated to find a good solution, since OKC is the jail’s largest customer. I think they agree with voters that what is needed is a better jail than what we have now, so I think you have all these motivated parties to work it out.”
FAA hurdles remain for the selected location
Maughan said all of the sites had drawbacks, including opposition from residential neighborhoods near most of the potential properties.
“They all had downsides, so it’s a choice of a trade-off for location versus infrastructure versus how far it is away from facilities and what you have to do to tie into utilities,” he said. “It was a balancing act to find the right matrix that worked.”
However, despite the site selection, there remains a deal to be negotiated between the city and the county.
“I think that the devil is in the details as far as how we come to terms,” Maughan said. “They needed to hear from us that we’re serious, and I think that we’ve signaled is that we’re serious, that we’re hopeful. But the city could come back and say, ‘No,’ then we’ll be back to square one.”
One of those details includes approval by the FAA. The site is in close proximity to Will Rogers World Airport, as well as the Federal Prison Transfer Center.
“The property is determined by the FAA if it is used for aeronautical or non-aeronautical use,” Will Rogers World Airport spokesman Stacey Hamm said. “If it is deemed as non-aeronautical, then there is a process that would require such actions as soil testing, which can take a while to do and is costly. The FAA would also be involved with reviewing the building plans to ensure the building is in compliance with the FAA rules regarding air space and line of sight for pilots and the tower.”
Mason said the Citizens Bond Oversight Advisory Board still has work to do, including selecting a contractor for the jail. It has already selected HOK to be the new jail’s architect. He said the process of selecting the site was inclusive and effective.
“I think it clicks a lot of the boxes,” Mason said of the site. “If you look at it, 59 percent voted to fund a new jail a year ago. I think if you went out and actually surveyed every citizen, the number would be much higher because I think the community has become aware that we desperately need a new jail. There is strong support.
“But when you start picking sites, you have this dilemma. A lot of people didn’t want a jail in their neighborhood, which is something we respected. I am thankful that the neighborhoods showed up to give us input, because it was useful. It helped us quite a bit having that input.”
Mason, a prominent OKC developer, said the project is perhaps the most important in which he has been involved.
“The fact we’re making progress is rewarding, and it makes me feel like we did important work for this community,” Mason said. “We had a mission, and we’re not done, but we’re making progress.”