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Benton County may save old Post Office

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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 may build a courts facility without tearing down the old Post Office building on the downtown square.

County Judge Barry Moehring told the justices of the peace concepts for the proposed courts building preserve the old Post Office building, at least for the near future.

Court costs

Benton County’s Finance Committee will discuss ways to pay for a new courts building when the committee meets at 6 p.m. Oct. 3 in the Quorum Courtroom at the County Administration Building. County Judge Barry Moehring said the estimated cost of the project is from $20 million to $25 million.

Source: Staff Report

"It looks today as if we may be able to build the first eight courtrooms and not take down the old Post Office," Moehring said. "This allows us to continue to have Judge Brad Karren continue to hold court in the old Post Office."

Moehring briefed the justices of the peace on the status of the project Tuesday during a meeting of the Quorum Court's Committee of the Whole. He also warned them nothing has been decided.

"This is not final yet," he said.

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Moehring said concepts show a building of four or five stories, with 80,000 to 90,000 square feet of space, on a building site on Northeast Second Street. The building will provide space for eight courtroom and judge's chambers, with additional space for the Circuit Clerk, County Clerk and other related county offices. The cost of the building is estimated at $20 million to $25 million.

Discussion on a courts building has gone on for years. Early studies identified possible sites downtown and another on county land near the Benton County Jail on Southwest 14th Street. The Quorum Court voted earlier this year to keep the courts downtown.

Hight-Jackson Associates was hired to do architectural design work. The National Center for State Courts from Denver will provide courtroom design. The Hight-Jackson contract is for $122,500, plus additional costs, for phase I. NCSC will be paid $135,000, plus costs. The two firms worked on a new courts building study presented in 2014. That study and a second one commissioned by the county will be used as a basis for design work, Moehring said. Building designs likely will take the rest of the year to complete, Moehring said.

Moehring said the county has retained the Little Rock firm of Friday, Eldridge and Clark to serve as bond counsel for the project. He said a construction management firm will likely be chosen by the end of the week.

Also Tuesday, the justice of the peace authorized Moehring to sign a letter supporting a feasibility study related to the Open Space plan adopted in 2016 by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. The commission is made up of area cities and counties and largely focuses on regional transportation issues.

Elizabeth Bowen, project manager for the commission, told the justices of the peace the Open Spaces plan is a voluntary effort to protect water quality and preserve natural spaces, including areas devoted to agriculture.

The study will be done at no cost to the county by The Trust For Public Land. Linda Orel, a conservation finance director for the organization, said the study will provide the county with data on support for land preservation efforts in Benton County that could be used to develop a program to acquire and protect land. Orel and Bowen both stressed the voluntary nature of the program but some justices of the peace were wary.

"I would like to offer a reminder that the income tax was voluntary to begin with," Michelle Chiocco, justice of the peace, said during the discussion.

Tom Allen, justice pf the peace, said he supported the idea of the feasibility study but only because the county isn't obligated to go any further.

"Information is good as long as it doesn't bind us to anything," Allen said.

Bowen and Orel told the justices of the peace the study will be done from October through December and a report will be made to the Quorum Court early in 2018.

NW News on 09/13/2017

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