The look of downtown is going to change significantly with the expansion of the Boone County Courthouse, but what those changes will be and when they will happen remains uncertain.
County officials have said for years the courthouse must be expanded to accommodate the demands of a growing community. The Boone County Commission appointed a Space Needs Committee last fall to determine the best way to achieve that goal. The committee has been meeting since October and offered this past week a set of options and recommendations the county commission can consider.
The county built in 1993 a large annex on the courthouse’s north side, which houses offices and courtrooms for three circuit judges and seven associate circuit judges. The courthouse also houses the offices of the prosecuting attorney, the circuit clerk, the public administrator and the family court commissioner.
Studying options for courthouse expansion is only one of the committee’s responsibilities. It won’t present its recommendations on the courthouse until it completes a review of options for creating more space for offices housed in the Boone County Government Center. It will also develop an interim plan to address immediate space problems.
Once commissioners receive the recommendations, the first step probably will be sending them to an architect.
Options for the courthouse include adding a third floor to the existing courthouse annex, building a new annex immediately west of the existing building or constructing a new courthouse on county-owned property west of Seventh Street. The county bought four buildings within the past year and now owns the majority of the block bordered by Sixth, Seventh, Walnut and Ash streets.
Other recommendations include ensuring the new annex somehow connects to the courthouse. If the annex is across the street, that could mean vacating a one-block section of Seventh Street or building a bridge or underground tunnel. Committee and commissioners believe an annex must be connected to the courthouse for security reasons and to allow those working in either building to have direct access to one another.
While it’s been only 12 years since the county added the courthouse annex and built the county government center, steady growth in the county has increased officials’ workloads and caused a new crowding problem. Public Administrator Connie Hendren, for example, said her caseload is three times what it was when she started her job in 1993.
Hendren said she would like her office to remain in the current courthouse, which has a secure entrance and allows her to be near the probate court that she works with every day.
Members of the committee decided any new annexes or construction should match or complement the materials and architecture of existing buildings in the area and work into long-term plans for future expansion of courthouse functions.
The expansion would likely occur in three phases over 15 to 25 years to keep pace with needs.
When it was first appointed, the Space Needs Committee was asked to review a proposal by the Boone County Commission that called for adding two floors to the existing courthouse annex and asking voters as early as April 5 to approve a bond issue to pay for that and other space-related projects.
The possibility of adding one floor remains viable, but adding another would greatly increase costs. The building’s façade is made of expensive limestone, and the elevator shaft would also have to be extended to the fourth floor. A fourth floor is not out of the picture, though, as the committee has continually said it wants to leave all options open to an architect.
“The courthouse was originally constructed to accommodate going vertical,” said Committee Chairman David Shorr.
The Space Needs Committee might be working longer than originally planned because it’s been dealing with a moving target, Schnarre said. When the members began their work, the county had not acquired the former Lifestyles Furniture building or the nearby law firm across the street from the courthouse.
County Treasurer Kay Murray, a committee member, thinks the group is taking a long time because of its size and the difficulty in getting all 18 members at the same meeting. The time the committee has spent will prove to citizens that all the options have been fully reviewed, she said.
Planning for courthouse expansion also becomes difficult when looking 30 or 40 years down the road and trying to predict what needs might be then.
Schnarre said he didn’t know, when the committee was appointed, how long it would take to do its work and he still doesn’t know when it will finish. He does appreciate the thorough job it’s doing, he said.
As far as what could happen in the upcoming months, it might be a matter of wait and see. The county commission eventually will have to determine the best method of paying for any expansion; that could mean proposing a tax increase to voters.
Meanwhile, the committee will examine an interim strategy that could include creating office space in the courthouse law library and putting up partitions in the prosecuting attorney’s office, said Court Administrator Kathy Lloyd.
Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane is willing to wait.
“We’ve got to be realistic about it,” he said. “If major improvements are made, I don’t expect it would be immediate.”
A portion of this report first aired Thursday during “ABC 17 News at 10.”