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Built in 1897, western Minnesota courthouse to undergo $4.5 million improvement project

BENSON, Minn.– Construction could begin this summer on a $4.5 million renovation of the historic Swift County Courthouse in Benson to increase security in courtrooms, reconfigure some department offices and update a myriad of maintenance issues that are decades overdue.

On a 4-1 vote Tuesday, the Swift County Board of Commissioners agreed to have architects prepare bidding documents for the project.

“It’s not the gold-crested, best-of-the-best-of-the-best,” said Swift County Board Chairman Eric Rudningen. “It’s a reasonable plan to update the building, upgrade the environment and our windows, insulation and things that need to be done.”

Part of the project includes moving Safe Avenues – an advocacy program for victims of domestic and sexual abuse – from the basement of the law enforcement center to the Countryside Public Health building.

To accommodate that move, and to address safety and deferred maintenance issues at the public health building, an additional $500,000 in renovations there will bring the total project cost to $5 million.

While agreeing to move ahead with a major component of the county’s long-term capital improvement plan, the board agreed to put a $1.4 million project to improve the health and human services building on the back burner.

Construction on the approved project is expected to begin this summer and last three to four months, said Jonathan Loose, architect with Wold Architects and Engineers.

To make the courthouse renovation go as quickly as possible, Loose recommended that staff and services – including the courts – be temporarily located elsewhere. He suggested that court be held in another community courtroom in the judicial district.

Having the courthouse empty will shorten the construction schedule and improve costs, Loose said.

At the courthouse, $3 million will be dedicated to fixing deferred maintenance projects, including heating and ventilation, plumbing, handicapped accessibility and interior and exterior improvements.

Built in 1897, the courthouse has an antiquated steam-heat boiler system that will be replaced with a new heating and ventilation system at an estimated cost of $1.6 million.

Changes to the courtroom floor will increase security for staff, inmates and the public by providing a separate elevator, doors and corridors.

Currently, there is little to separate the parties, Loose said.

“Every party that would be on that floor can be in the same area, so you can get judges mixing with inmates mixing with jury mixing with the general public,” he said. “And from a security and safety standpoint, and also from a due process standpoint, it can be a real challenge.”

Sheriff John Holtz told the commissioners that the proposed plan will help “keep the inmates away from the public” and make it easier to move the jury from the courtroom to the deliberation room.

While the design is not perfect, Holtz said he thinks there is a way to also incorporate a weapon screening area by the courtrooms.

The plan also includes creating a more user-friendly area on the main floor for taxpayer services. To create enough office space there, the commissioners agreed to move their meeting room to the basement level of the law enforcement center.

Because the county’s tax base is 80 percent agricultural land – and given the low crop prices – Rudningen said in a later interview that the board is trying to be prudent with spending taxpayers’ money on the project.

But he said aside from repairing the roof 20 years ago, the county has not made a major investment in the courthouse for 40 years.

“In 1897, I promise, they didn’t have the money to build this building,” Rudningen said. “But they figured out a way to do it and they left us this asset and we have to take care of it.”

If the county doesn’t make the investment now, he said, there may not be a courthouse to leave to the next generation.

Loose said the scheduled improvements should carry the building forward for at least another 30 years.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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