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MEEKER I Roughly 90 people were present the evening of March 12 as the Rio Blanco County commissioners unveiled their concept drawing for turning the old Meeker Elementary School into a new justice center, which would hold the county jail, courts, sheriff’s office, county attorney and staff and court-related offices.
Those present heard a 90-minute presentation by the commissioners and former commissioner Ken Parsons regarding the entire history of the need for a new justice center, starting when Parsons was on the board in 2005.
Commission Chairman Jon Hill started by stating that the county has had the money set aside for the project and that there will be no need for a bond issue. He also stated that the board has been serious about moving forward with the new center for about nine months, when the board put out a call for architects for the project.
Initially, 14 architects responded, then the number was dropped to 10, then narrowed to four, then Reilly Johnson was chosen.
Former commissioner Parsons said that in 2005 if someone had told him it would be 2014 before anything was done, he would have been very surprised. Archetype was originally hired to build the new jail in 2005, but then an energy company tax lawsuit came up. The county lost the litigation and had to use the set-aside building funds to pay off the energy company.
After the suit was worked out and the county had the necessary funds again, the same four sites considered for the justice center in 2005 were the same sites looked at this time: Curtis Creek, the old elementary school, behind the current courthouse and the old Bureau of Land Management building.
Commissioner Shawn Bolton said the original 2011 plans called for construction on the back of the current courthouse. It was originally 75,000 square feet but had “a tremendous amount of wasted space,” he said, and Archetype was asked to cut it down to 50,000 feet. The current project will entail 20,000 feet, he said.
Originally, Bolton added, the forecast cost was $20 million to $23 million and that was agreed to as way too high.
The current plans call for expenditures of $14,186,000 with 10 percent or $1,418,600 set aside for cost overruns, bringing the total to $15,604,600.
“It is important we get on with this project because we don’t want what happened in Routt County to happen to us,” Bolton said. “The state went in there and told them what they had to do, and that ended up costing $40 million. That could very easily be us if we don’t do something soon.”
County Planner Eric Jaquez said the county is using a four-pronged process on the project: evaluate the project team; evaluate the historic information; evaluate the possible sites and solutions; and evaluate the proposed conceptual designs.
Asked why not use the courthouse, Jaquez said that would require the county to put the geothermal heating/cooling system in front of the current courthouse, there would be no room for growth down the line, the courthouse is currently short on the requirements for the new building and there is no place for enough specific cells.
He said the goals of the project are to build a “safe and secure” facility, to find the most fiscally sound solution to taking care of the needs at the courthouse, to expand to afford more county usage, to design and construct a building with the opportunity to expand in the future and to make certain traffic flow meets state standards and requirements.
Bob Johnson of Reilly Johnson, which specializes in justice center construction and has completed projects in Nebraska, Louisiana, Wyoming and Montana, but works mostly in Colorado, said the justice center in Meeker will hold nothing more than courts, related offices, the sheriff’s office and jail.
He said that utilizing the old school offers several advantages in that: there is no significant dirt work needed; 10,000 square feet of the project will be reused because of the old school; the site already has all utilities; no road work needs to be added; parking is already in place and 10 additional parking places will be added with the project; and the sandstone that will be utilized in the front of the center is already there and it fits in with downtown architecture.
Johnson added that the center offers a good way to separate staff, the public and the inmates from each other, making it safer for all.
Also, a 1,500 square-foot gazebo will be located about 50 feet north of the intersection of Fifth and Main streets, if that road is closed, Johnson pointed out on the drawing.
Jaquez said, “We consider this whole thing still in the concept stage and what we have is still subject to change. The key now is to offer an idea, and these drawings are currently what we feel is best for the county.”
Bolton also reported that the county is talking with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) on a possible $4 million to $6 million grant and with HistoryColorado for money to help pay the costs of doors and windows, which would help defray some of the the overall costs.
“We will also strongly pursue grants,” he said. “That would hopefully save the county more money.”
Bolton also pointed out that the new justice center will be for Rio Blanco County inmates and that prisoners from other counties will not be accepted.
The last speaker before the meeting was opened for public input was Rebecca Goodwin of LaJunta, chairman of the board for Colorado Preservation, Inc.
She said that every 10 years the state does a comprehensive study of needs and that many of the older schools have been lost in the past 10 years.
“I also recognize that the jail is aging and that there are a lot of problems,” she said.
“I’m not here to tell you what to do, but I have learned that compromise is a strong reality of life,” Goodwin said. “I am impressed with the courthouse drawings, particularly with the commissioners’ intent to keep the front of the school and to keep the flat roof or appearance of the flat roof.
“But most importantly, I would urge everyone in town to maintain a sense of community,” she said. “Don’t let this issue tear the townfolks apart.”