Residents don’t like the idea of justice center

A public meeting to hear presentations about the future of the Meeker Elementary School will be held Oct. 6 at the Town Hall.
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A public meeting to hear presentations about the future of the Meeker Elementary School will be held Oct. 6 at the Town Hall.
A public meeting to hear presentations about the future of the Meeker Elementary School will be held Oct. 6 at the Town Hall.
MEEKER I No decision has been made about the future use of the Meeker Elementary School, but some residents who live near the 70-year-old stone building are adamant about what they don’t want it to become.
A jail.
“I’m totally against it,” said homeowner Larry Beck, who lives on Park Avenue, across from the elementary school.
With a new elementary school — located east of the Meeker Recreation Center — scheduled to be completed next spring, the current grade school will be vacated and the town will take it over. The town has been leasing the space to the school district for a $1 year.
At a meeting Oct. 6, the town board has invited groups interested in the old elementary school, or the site, located on Main Street, in Meeker’s downtown district, to make public presentations.
Two groups that have expressed an interest in the elementary school location are Rio Blanco County and Colorado Northwestern Community College.
Residents will also have an opportunity to voice their concerns Oct. 6 and at future meetings.
“If there is more to talk about than can be heard during that meeting, the item will be scheduled on each future agenda until all have been heard,” said Town Administrator Sharon Day.
The existing jail is located in the upper level of the county courthouse, in the center of Meeker’s downtown district, just across the street from the elementary school, to the west. But that doesn’t make some area residents, like Jan Oldland, feel better about the proposed justice center.
“There are fewer prisoners (in the current jail than would be housed in the proposed justice center),” said Oldland, whose house is located across the street from the elementary school. “We hardly see them now, but we’d see them a whole lot more. Plus, (the proposed justice center) would be considerably taller (than the elementary school), so the view would be diminished.”
Back in June, a representative of Archetype Design of Leawood, Kan., made a presentation to the town board on behalf of the county’s proposal to build a justice center on the school site. Jim Lichty of Archetype said the school site, located across the street from the county courthouse, is “perfectly located” for a justice center.
Some residents of the area don’t agree.
“My feeling is, we’ve put a lot of work and money in to creating a certain atmosphere downtown, to attract people to Meeker, and we need to try and preserve that,” said homeowner Brian Conrado, whose house is on Park Avenue, across the elementary school. “I don’t think a jail in that location goes with the neighborhood.
“I know it’s easy to create hard feelings, and that’s not our intent,” Conrado added. “Our intent is to preserve something that’s important to downtown.”
Conrado would like to see the elementary school building used for a different purpose.
“I think it would be better if they can preserve (the building),” Conrado said. “That would be nice. I realize it takes a lot of money (to restore the building). But I don’t think a jail fits down there.”
Oldland, who also lives on Park Avenue, across from the school playground, agrees.
“I think it could be preserved and used,” Oldland said of the school building. “But if the building can’t be saved, I’d like (the space) to go back to 1913 when it was a park, like in Jackson Hole (Wyoming), which has the coolest town square, where they have public space that is used for events.”
Homeowner Larry Beck also likes the idea of an open space for the school site, or restoring the school building and using it for a different purpose.
“I don’t think it would be a heck of a lot more expensive than building a new building,” Beck said of remodeling the school. “They could make it county office space, or even commercial space, or even if they tore it down, it could be a beautiful park, just like the old days.”
Beck said if a justice center was built on the school site it would diminish the uniqueness of Meeker’s downtown district and change the architectural landscape of the area.
“A two-story (justice center) would block our view of the mountains and possibly inhibit the resale value (of homes in the area),” Beck said. “It would change the aesthetics of Meeker.”
Whether the elementary school is preserved, or the site is converted into an open space for public use, Oldland is OK with either idea. But she doesn’t like the justice center proposal.
“It just isn’t appropriate,” she said. “It would be nice for the courthouse, I understand that, but I think it would decrease home values, which is why homeowners are very upset.”
Area resident Conrado is also concerned about what a justice center might do to property values of homes in the neighborhood.
“People have put a lot of money into their houses to preserve something from the past,” said Conrado, whose house was built in 1886. He bought it in 1971. “To see this happen, you’d think, what was all that for (fixing up his property)? You put that (justice center) in the middle of town, who would want to live by one? Logic tells me, people won’t want to live next to that. All I can say is, if I knew that (a justice center) was coming in, I’d put my house up for sale in a minute, I really would.”
The current county jail is already located downtown, in the upper level of the courthouse. However, the county needs more jail space — prisoners are often transported to other jails in the area to be housed, which is expensive — and officials say it would be cost prohibitive to remodel the current jail and bring it up to code.
The school building also has its problems. The roof leaks, for example, there’s asbestos in the walls, which would have to be removed, and there are deficiencies with the electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems.
“If there are structural problems (with the school building), that’s fine,” said homeowner Conrado. “Then make it an open space. I realize it’s extravagant to have an open space … but it’s better than having a justice center downtown. I realize why there are reasons they’d want to do that (to have a justice center located across the street from the courthouse), but sometimes you have to do something other than for dollars and cents.”
Homeowner Beck would like see a justice center built away from the downtown district.
“They should go right outside of town, possibly near (Highways) 64 and 13,” Beck said. “That would still be centrally located, but it would not change the architecture of the town. We moved here because of the small-town atmosphere.”
Margie Joy, Meeker Chamber of Commerce president, said she would like to see the school space put to good use, whatever goes in there.
“We are not taking a stand for or against any activity … the question that needs to be asked in this process is, what is going to drive the activity centers in our community, because activity centers drive economics, and how are we answering those questions as far as what happens to our downtown area?” Joy said.
County Administrator Pat Hooker said the county is “actively working on putting together an alternate site selection analysis for potential other sites for the new justice center.”
However, county officials believe the downtown location of a justice center would not only centralize county offices, but have economic benefits for the town’s retail district.
“One of the main reasons the county wants to use the elementary school site is to keep the business community alive in downtown Meeker,” Hooker said. “The commissioners believe if the new justice center is moved outside of town, it will have a very negative impact on the downtown business community.”
As the debate continues about where to build a justice center, area resident Beck hopes homeowners in the neighborhood will have a say in what happens with the site of the old elementary school building.
“I do know quite a few people who are against this, and not just people who live right here,” Beck said. “Hopefully (town officials’) minds aren’t made up and they won’t just ramrod this through. We love the small-town atmosphere, and to change all of this on the whim of politicians, would be a shame. I know they can do anything they want, but they should listen to the people of the town.”
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