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Benton County hires courts designers

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Photographs by BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF / NWA Democrat-Gazette

The cornerstone inscription on the old post office building on the Bentonville square.

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County officials plan to get back to work soon on the courts building project.

County Judge Barry Moehring on Thursday signed a contract with Hight-Jackson Associates to do architectural design work. The county earlier hired the National Center for State Courts in Denver to provide courtroom design.

Old Post Office

Benton County owns the old Post Office building on the northeast corner of the downtown square in Bentonville. It was built in 1935 and later acquired by the county for office space. The building houses Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren’s court. County officials have seen several concepts for a new courts building on the site, with some preserving the building and others razing it.

Source: Staff report

The Quorum Court agreed to keep the courts downtown rather than moving them to a site near the County Jail on Southwest 14th Street. Discussion on a new courts building has gone on for years.

A teleconference held Thursday afternoon should get the project moving, Moehring said.

"We had an initial 'touch base' call," Moehring said of the conference. "The next step will be determining a time when NCSC and Hight-Jackson can come into town to start doing their assessment and planning, as well as meeting with all the stakeholders."

Architects and consultants will review the work done for two previous studies commissioned by the county as a basis for designing a building on Northeast Second Street, Moehring said. Hight-Jackson and NCSC will hire firms to do surveying, engineering and environmental assessment work on the site, Moehring said.

The county's request for proposals for architectural and consulting services had included a goal of having design drawings to the county by September, but that has been pushed back to the end of the year, Moehring said.

"We'll have some preliminary information in September, but not to get to the level we need to be making decisions on funding," Moehring said. "NCSC says it's a 16-week process for them, starting Aug. 1."

Moehring wants the county to pay for the project out of existing revenue and not seek a tax increase. Joel Jones, justice of the peace, said the Quorum Court needs to begin to look at savings and budget cuts this fall when work on the 2018 budget starts.

"Barry has been very consistent in his view that he is going to come at this from a non-tax method, which doesn't require a vote," Jones said. "So the need for us to have the design done in August or September goes away. The time frame doesn't have to be as condensed."

Earlier studies have given the county a range of costs, depending on different building options, from $20 million to $30 million, Jones said. Jones said the county should look at spending from its reserve, and he would be willing to spend as much as $10 million out of a $12 million reserve fund.

"I think Barry's trying to be even more conservative and get that number down," Jones said. "But we know we still have something to start planning for, and we can start in that direction without having the final designs. We've got reserves of around $12 million, I'd say, and we've always said that's going to be a significant portion of how we pay for it. It was put aside for things like this. It's been set aside, and we've saved and scrimped, and this is why."

One question is whether the county will preserve the old Post Office building that houses Benton County Judge Brad Karren's courtroom. The building was completed in 1935 and has been extensively remodeled over the years to house county offices and now a courtroom. A handful of community activists and people interested in historical preservation have voiced their support to save the building, but Randy McCrory isn't optimistic about saving the building.

"I was very disappointed with the interest in saving the building when we tried to organize on Facebook and other places," McCrory said. "I don't think a group of three people, which is what we had come out, is going to be able to implement any change. I think the old Post Office is going to come down. That's what I'm reading from it."

Glenn Jones, another local preservationist, echoed McCrory's pessimism about the future of the building.

"Here in Northwest Arkansas we're a busy society," Jones said. "Everybody's moving and coming and going all the time, and history falls by the wayside."

Susan Anglin, justice of the peace, has supported saving the old Post Office during past discussions, and she still hopes it can be utilized in some way.

"It's very important to me that we at least look at it and, if we can, save some portion of it," she said. "I've always thought the approach was that we were going to utilize what we have. It's also important to me how the downtown square looks, how it's always looked. I don't like the idea of everything changing."

Anglin wants public input on the project before a final decision is made, even though public response has been muted in the past.

"We've had public meetings where no one has shown up to speak," she said. "But we do need to hear their thoughts."

NW News on 07/17/2017

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