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Helmut Schmidt, Published September 30 2012

Cass County prepares to open courthouse addition

FARGO - It’s been more than a decade of planning, legal battles and construction setbacks, but the west addition to the Cass County Courthouse is nearly ready for business.

The $14.7 million, 72,000-square-foot addition will be put to good use, says Scott Wagner, chairman of the Cass County Commission.

“We needed this thing over a decade ago,” said Wagner, citing the county’s 50 percent growth in population since 1986.

“It keeps this historic 1904 courthouse the center of county government for decades to come,” he said.

Half of the west addition is given over to district court, with three large, modern courtrooms on the second and third floors, plus dedicated rooms for juries and media, Wagner said during a tour of the facility Friday.

Large flat-panel screens in the halls show the building layout and trial schedules.

Prisoner transfers will now be highly secure and segregated, with an indoor prisoner drop-off and pickup area, holding cells and separate corridors and elevators to transfer prisoners so they don’t come into contact with victims or witnesses.

A sophisticated camera and electronics system helps monitor prisoners, County Administrator Keith Berndt said.

For more than a decade, prisoners have been brought in through a single outside door, Berndt said.

Deputies had to regularly sweep the area to be sure no weapons would be secreted for use by prisoners. Sometimes, they’d find what they were looking for, Wagner said.

In the courthouse, Wagner said rape victims would sometimes have to be taken into bathrooms to prevent interaction during prisoner movements.

“That type of stuff will never happen again,” Wagner said.

Safer infrastructure

The commission room on the first floor is much larger than the old facility. It’s also media friendly, with the capability to broadcast meetings and flat-screen TVs to display documents for attendees.

Communications, computing, heating and air conditioning equipment is all on the second floor, away from damage due to potential flooding.

“During a crisis, the county has to stay in operation,” Berndt said.

The basement has a secure parking garage with space for 29 vehicles.

A skyway over 10th Street South also provides safe access between the addition and the Cass County Annex.

And there’s plenty of office and meeting space, Wagner and Berndt said. Offices vacated in the old courthouse then go to the sheriff’s department.

“There won’t be an inch that will get unused,” Wagner said.

To celebrate, the county plans a ribbon-cutting and tours Friday, Berndt said. The ribbon-cutting will be at 10:30 a.m., with tours of the facility following until about noon.

A luncheon will then be served for dignitaries on the skyway, Wagner said.

Long, strange road

Wagner has been a commissioner 12 years. He was first sworn into office on December 2000 and saw the first schematics for the addition in March 2001.

“It took over 11 years of my 12 years” to see those plans come to fruition, said Wagner, who ends his time on the commission in December.

The original courthouse was built in 1904, with a jail and sheriff’s residence added in 1913. Additions were later made to the courthouse in 1981 and 1986.

It was in May 2001 when the Cass County Commission voted to demolish the crumbling jail and sheriff’s residence and replace them.

But in March 2002, those plans were met by a “Save the Jail” group, led by then-High Plains Reader editor John Strand. The group’s aim was to see if the buildings could be spared for their historic value.

In March 2003, the county board voted to demolish the jail. In April, the State Historical Board signed off on razing the sheriff’s residence, and demolition began soon after.

The jail-saving group quickly filed a lawsuit and obtained a temporary restraining order but dropped the order two weeks later because the damage to the sheriff’s residence was already too great.

Then the county fought back, seeking $39,000 in legal fees for the delay in demolition.

It wasn’t until 2005 that a jury decided that neither side could collect for their damages or legal fees.

In 2006, planning on the addition began anew, though it wasn’t until February 2010 that the county voted to proceed with design work. The target completion date was put at December 2011.

On shaky ground

In July 2010, bids for the first phase foundation work were accepted, and shortly after, problems began cropping up.

In August, it was learned that water runoff had caused voids by the timber foundation of the old courthouse. A slurry had to be pumped in to prevent rotting of the timbers.

Then asbestos was found in a crawl space and had to be removed.

Heavy rains slowed work through the fall,

In December, soft soils were found on the southeast corner of the addition.

That required drilling bore holes to make concrete support columns to stabilize the structure.

By July of 2011, the target for completion had been pushed back to late spring or summer 2012.

Then last October, work on the skywalk over 10th Street South was delayed, as a gas line had to be moved. It wasn’t until this last April that the frame for the skywalk was started.

Still on budget

Despite the legal and construction challenges, the courthouse came in on budget, Brandt and Wagner said.

A big part of that is all due to the project’s timing.

The start of construction in 2010 came as the national and regional economies were still coming out of recession, Wagner said.

Contractors were hungry for work, and bids came in $1.2 million under the architect’s estimates.

The county saved another $800,000 through a federal program that picked up nearly half of the interest costs tied to the project, Wagner said.

The county also picked up another $600,000 for work on the courtrooms from a state program, he said.

Those savings defrayed the costs tied to the extra soil and foundation work and asbestos removal. The funds also made it possible to fully outfit all of the new courtrooms immediately, Wagner said.

Finishing touches

On Friday, tradesmen and laborers were finishing the last of the work on the building and grounds.

Wagner pointed out how the new addition melded well with the original 1904 building as well as the 1981 north wing and 1986 south wing additions.

Sandstone reclaimed from the old jail and sheriff’s residence is incorporated into the addition and a fence that borders the courthouse grounds.

The old courthouse’s distinctive bell tower remains visible from all directions.

The long narrow windows of the new addition also mimic those in the 1904 structure, helping the eye blend the two structures together.

At the same time, large windows on the south side of the addition let in a tremendous amount of natural light on all three floors.

“I think we struck a nice balance,” Wagner said.

Strand, for his part, said he’s “glad there’s some connections to the past.” He wants to put the acrimony of the court fights and the many tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees behind him.

He figures the costs for the Save the Jail group tally up to about $150,000.

“When it’s all said and done, they’ll probably have a pretty spectacular campus there … and that’s their job, too,” to be set for many generations, Strand said.

Workers will begin to move into the addition Oct. 8, with the first commission meeting there on Oct. 15, Wagner said.

“It’ll be here for decades. I think that’s significant,” Wagner said.

Timeline of Cass County Courthouse construction

Here’s a brief timeline of the Cass County Courthouse construction:

• 1904-06 – The Cass County Courthouse is built.

• 1913 – The jail and sheriff’s residence are built.

• 1981 – The north wing is built.

• 1986 – The south wing is built.

• May 2001 – The commission votes to demolish the old jail and sheriff’s residence and replace them.

• March 2002 – High Plains Reader Editor John Strand helps form a “Save the Jail” group.

• Feb. 18, 2003: Commissioners vote 5-0 to award contracts to demolish the jail and sheriff’s residence. “Save the Jail” threatens to take the county to court.

• March 7, 2003: Old jail demolition is under way.

• March 12, 2003: State Historical Society stalls action on the sheriff’s residence’s fate.

• April 11, 2003: The State Historical Board votes to allow the razing of the sheriff’s residence. Crews begin work.

• April 14. 2003: “Save the Jail” gets a temporary restraining order as part of a lawsuit to stop jail demotion. The lawsuit claims the demolition requires a public vote. Two weeks later, the group gives up on the restraining order.

• May 7, 2003: County countersues Strand and preservationists for $39,000 in extra costs tied to delay of demolition of the old jail.

• March 31, 2004: Strand amends his lawsuit to seek legal fees, and payment for emotional distress and damage to his reputation.

• June 2005: A jury rejects the county’s countersuit for $39,000 in damages and court costs, and Strand’s claims for legal costs and other damages.

• February 2006: A committee formed to plan a west addition to the Cass County Courthouse meets in its first gathering since 2003.

• October 2009: The County Commission decides to seek a tax increase to pay for a $14.7 million addition to the courthouse.

• February 2010: The commission votes to proceed with design work on the addition. The target completion date is December 2011.

• July 2010: West addition first phase bid is accepted.

• August 2010: The project must deal with water problems around the foundation that could rot timber pilings for the courthouse. Then asbestos is found and must be removed.

• December 2010: Soft soils require boring holes for concrete columns to stabilize the structure.

• Oct. 2011: Completion is expected by May 2012. Then, work on the skywalk foundation is delayed when a gas line needs to be moved

• Oct. 5, 2012: Ribbon cutting is planned for the West Addition and skyway over 10th Street South.

• Oct. 8, 2012: County employees expected to begin moving into the new facility.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583