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Wapato's puzzling suitor
Garison Russo, the man who has offered Multnomah County a purported $9 million to buy the unopened Wapato jail, would be eliminating a major headache for local officials if he buys it regardless of whether his goal of creating a major hub of organic farming comes to pass.
The $58.4 million facility built in 2004 has cost the county an average of $400,000 a year in maintenance alone.
A review by the Portland Tribune, however, raises the question of whether Russo can or will pull off his ambitious plans for the property. The record shows a history of bold visions offered by Russo to other jurisdictions, but no evidence that they ever led to a successful project of the sort he says he has in mind for the jail.
After an initial couple of conversations with the Portland Tribune in which he promised a full interview, the self-described developer declined to answer questions about his real name or track record on projects.
Nor would he comment on the observations of a man who says he spent a couple of years working with Russo pursuing potential acquisition deals in the greenhouse industry. Dominick Wernicke says he subsidized Russo to the tune of thousands of dollars but never saw any results.
If he made an offer, I dont think its a legitimate offer, said Wernicke, when told of the Wapato situation. He worked with Russo under the company name Russo Capital Assets, which still links to Russos email address.
He says that he has these investors who will back him, but I dont believe that thats the case, Wernicke added. I put too much time and money and effort into this guy.
However, the Tribune was able to confirm that Russo is in negotiations to buy a 65-acre farm in West Linn, which could be a part of Russos larger vision. The sale could close in the near future.
So, who is Garison Russo, and what is he up to?
Previous news stories identify Russo as the founder of Humbolt Bay Energy, a renewable company registered in Nevada but operating out of Eureka, California. The companys 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.
An undated Corporate Prospectus Summary for the company online says it was founded in March 2011 to market a disruptive technology surrounding the production of a new wind turbine that will alter the business model paradigms currently seen within the wind energy marketplace. It identifies the founder and CEO as G. Garison Russo, and says he has a 20 year background in renewable energy (wind and solar), design/construction and real estate development and finance.
An extensive records database search using the service Accurint found no evidence of someone named G. Garison Russo, or Garison Russo, though it did find several Russos named Gary, a name that Garison Russo apparently has used in the past.
A Dun & Bradstreet report summarized by Accurint described Humboldt Bay Energy as a one-employee energy conservation consulting firm with sales of $83,000 in 2012.
Several former business associates of Russo other than Wernicke did not return calls. One who did pick up the phone was Randy Cook, listed in the Humboldt Bay prospectus as a financial and business adviser. Cook said he hadnt worked with Russo in a decade, but otherwise declined to comment.
Public records show that in 2011, as the California city of Rio Dell considered a wind energy project, Russo presented them with his vision for a solar turbine. He also made a presentation about wind energy to the Redwood Coast Energy Authority.
In Oregon, Russo has tried but failed to become involved in two other government redevelopment plans in the region over the past five years.
In 2011, using the Humboldt Bay Energy name, Russo bid to convert Centennial Mills in Portland into a showroom for the company. According to an Aug. 29, 2011, letter Russo sent the PDC, We are interested in moving our global corporate headquarters to the World Trade Center in downtown Portland with the intent of potentially using the Centennial Mills site as a mass production, assembly and distribution center, business center and showroom center to showcase all of our state-of-the-art renewable energy products and systems while in the process of creating hundreds of jobs at the senior management, middle management and labor levels in addition to creating hundreds of jobs by outsourcing and subcontracting construction and installation.
My investors are multibillion-dollar private equity individuals, he wrote, but added, It has to pencil out!
The Portland Development Commission awarded the redevelopment of Centennial Mills to Harsch Investments instead. That project has fallen through.
I remember that he came into the PDC offices and had all kinds of colorful brochures and pictures, but I dont remember anything else about him, says downtown developer Scott Andrews, who was chair of the PDC at the time.
The following year, Russo said he wanted to redevelop a portion of the former Blue Heron Co. paper mill in Oregon City for commercial and retail uses. According to an email he sent the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the sale in December 2011, Our intent would be to renovate the existing facilities and land in establishing a large scale (Pacific Northwest base operations) Mass Production facility for our renewable energy technologies including our new line of solar energy systems, wind energy systems, water (hydro) energy systems and solar thermal energy systems.
The West Linn Tidings reported that Russo was disqualified from bidding on the project because he did not post the required $200,000 deposit.
In a March 29, 2012, email, Russo blamed the withdrawal on some uncomfortable circumstances that arose behind the scenes in the last two weeks relative to the bankruptcy representative overseeing the Blue Heron sale.
Russos plans sparked skepticism in some quarters at the time. Two former West Linn officials say that Russo met with them to discuss his plans, and they developed concerns as to whether the resources he claimed to have really existed.
Chris Kerr, the citys former economic development director, says that in addition to his energy plans, Russo wanted to build tall towers that would grow vegetables on the property. His presentation consisted of several slides on his laptop that appeared hastily prepared, Kerr recalled.
Kirsten Wyatt, a former assistant city manager, describes it as the most memorable meeting she held, despite hundreds of similar ones with developers pitching projects. She recalls Russo asking her and the former city manager, Chris Jordan, their favorite bands Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen and then promising to have them play the waterfront at his new development.
He had ideas about bringing in world-class musicians, Wyatt recalls. She said the vision seemed pie in the sky and out of left field. The city did not pursue the discussions.
Since Russo declined to answer questions, its unclear what he has been doing the past few years. Wernicke says he has been pursuing deals involving consolidation in the greenhouse industry, but declined to go into detail.
Whats clear is that Russo has found a motivated seller in Multnomah County, where the jail has been a controversial topic with the public ever since it was built.
A June 2016 property appraisal commissioned by the county found the facility is worth approximately $20 million as a detention center and $8.5 million as an industrial building.
Officials first heard from Russo two months ago, and he has even reportedly met with the elected county commissioners.
Russo has told people he would turn the unopened jail into an economic engine, putting people to work growing organic fruits and vegetables, and potentially even tilapia, using hydroponics and aquaponics, county officials say.
But his offer has raised questions. Commissioner Loretta Smith, who has pushed to use the jail as a homeless shelter, says her internet searches havent turned up much about the prospective Wapato buyer.
When I went to look him up, I thought he must be a baby because I couldnt find anything about him, not even a traffic ticket or a photo online, she said. I would have liked for us to do our due dligence before signing the letter of intent to sell.
Chair Deborah Kafoury, who signed the letter of intent, noted that it is nonbinding, saying I didnt see the harm in continuing a conversation with someone who may be a serious purchaser ... If he doesnt have the funds, were not going to sell it to him.
She said the discussions reflect her determination to sell the jail, linking it to her administrations success with other projects, such as the Sellwood Bridge replacment.
Were not going into this thing with our eyes closed, she added. Were doing our due diligence, and thats what this time period is for ... if it doesnt work we plan to go back out on the market.