Architect gives update on county building progress

Ward County has been trying to get a new office building to relieve space constraints in the Ward County Courthouse for a number of years. Slowly, step by step, that new building is becoming a reality.

Don Davison, an architect with JLG Architects, said this project has been in the works for a long time, and he’s only come on board relatively recently, considering there has been talk of of expanding the county’s office space for decades.

“This project has a lot of history to it. I’ve been working on it since 2005,” Davison said. “And always the biggest issues was, how do you pay for it?”

That piece of the puzzle slid into place when Ward County voters passed a 1/2 cent sales tax during this past November’s elections.

Davison said there were three main reasons the project got off the ground – overcrowding in the existing courthouse; the amount of lease payments being made by Ward County Social Services, which Davison said runs around $30,000 a month, or $360,000 a year; and county officials wanted to bring all of the county services under one roof, or at least in the same vicinity. As it stands, social services is located on North Hill while the rest of the county offices are in Ward County Courthouse in southeast Minot.

“I think we’ve accomplished all three of those goals with the solutions that we have,” Davison said, noting the solution was to build a new office building right across Third Avenue Southeast from the courthouse. The office will bring the workers from social services down from North Hill and combine them with the staff in the courthouse who aren’t related to court functions. The staff with court-related functions will stay in the courthouse.

Davison said about 1/2 to 1/3 of the office’s 65,000 square feet will go to social services, with the rest going to departments being relocated from the courthouse. This will allow court-related functions in the courthouse to expand.

It turned out cramped office space wasn’t the only challenge Ward County had to deal with.

“Once we got into this issue before the election last year, I think a larger problem came to light – and that was the overcrowding in the jail,” Davison said.

With the number of new people in town because of the oil boom, he said overcrowding in Ward County Jail is the worst it’s ever been, making jail expansion a critical issue.

“I think it was one of the larger issues that helped get the sales tax passed,” Davison said.

The building project will have three phases – construction of the new office building, jail expansion and courthouse remodeling. The new office is slated to cost around $15.3 million, while the jail expansion will be $10.5 million, and the courthouse remodeling will take up $3.5 million. There is also an additional $10 million being raised by the sales tax for infrastructure improvements, for a total of $39.3 million.

The office building will be tackled first, with Davison noting a few modifications have been made to the initial design.

“The look of the building, I think it’s a little different than what was presented during the bond issue, but we think it’s a real nice solution and I think those that have seen it within our committee have totally agreed,” Davison said.

He said they are planning to put the office building out for bids by the end of June or in July, with construction slated to begin in August for a completion date in the spring of 2015.

A member in the audience brought up the jail, and Davison admitted they have hit some snags with it.

A jail expert was brought in from Minneapolis and helped local architects come up with five different concepts for the jail expansion. The concepts were then presented to the Ward County Commission.

“Their biggest concern was we want the solution that allows for the most future expansion. So the solution that everybody would like to see has the largest footprint. And in so doing, it’s going to take some land acquisition to get that to happen,” Davison said. “So that’s kind of what’s happening right now. So we’ve kind of put that part of the project on hold for a little bit until that’s resolved, and then we’ll move forward.”

Davison’s original concept for the jail was a minimum of an additional 48 cells, which would almost double jail capacity. He said the larger issue as they got going on it soon became ensuring the jail was expandable for future needs.

“And part of that discussion came from visiting with the Williston sheriff’s department. As you know they just finished an expansion here a year or two ago and now they’re looking at adding on more,” Davison said. “So they didn’t plan far enough into the future. So that was a huge concern with the (Ward) County commissioners, and that’s why we’re looking at the solution that we are today.”

Davison said it was their intention all along for the jail design to fall around three to four months behind the office building, and with the various challenges yet to be faced he expects bidding on the jail won’t take place until next spring.

A member of the audience asked about security at the office building, since a walkway will connect it with the courthouse. Davison said the walkway will be secured at both ends, which allows the office building to be less secure so employees and citizens doing business there won’t have to deal with the security screening required at the courthouse.

Another Kiwanin asked about state funding sources, and Davison said they are looking at all available options to supplement the sales tax and perhaps lower the bill a bit for county residents.

“Just because we’ve got the sales tax in place does not mean that the county commissioners aren’t looking for additional funding sources,” Davison said.

Another question Davison answered was about voting in the courthouse. While Davison said he didn’t know for sure, his guess was voting won’t take place in the courthouse anymore, and will instead take place in the new office building when it’s ready.

Parking was also brought up, which is always a sticking point with any construction project in the downtown area. Davison said parking is one of the issues they are trying to work out with the land acquisition deal. He said they are trying to swing a deal to procure The Minot Daily News’ parking lot, which is just across Third Avenue Southeast from the courthouse. That avenue will eventually be closed as part of the construction plans.

“And in addition to that, the county has leased or rented about 140 or 160 spots from the railroad just to the northeast of there,” Davison said. “We’re going to need some staging area for construction and that will be at least temporary for maybe some staging, some county parking. But I think that downtown is always going to have parking issues.”

As it stands, he said they will have about 80 spots if nothing changes, which is about the minimum needed for the office building. He also said that is before some parking will be taken away from the jail for its expansion. He noted part of the original scheme was a two-level parking ramp, but it was dropped for cost reasons.