Officials want to build new courthouse at same site

Don Beck

After scoping out several locations around Lewiston, all of Nez Perce County’s elected officials agreed Tuesday that building a new courthouse at the same site as the existing building is their best option.

And there was near-universal consensus that the time to move forward is now.

“As we know, construction costs continue to go up,” county Commissioner Don Beck told a meeting of county elected officials Tuesday. “Right now, our financing is probably as low as it’s going to get. We have an opportunity to possibly stay right here.”

Portions of the courthouse at 1230 Main St. are more than a century old. The building suffers from multiple deficiencies, including structural damage suffered in a 2017 earthquake. County officials have been exploring the best way to replace the courthouse for the past three years, with the most recent discussions geared toward a centralized location with more space to build and grow.

But there was heavy resistance to that prospect. Opposition came from the legal community, which has spent considerable time, money and energy establishing itself around the existing courthouse. It also came from the Beautiful Downtown Lewiston economic development agency, which sees the courthouse as a major draw to get people downtown. And it came from the Lewiston City Council, whose members envisioned a revamped government district to serve the needs of its constituents.

And while some of the county’s elected officials initially favored a new location because construction would be easier, offer more parking and cost about $10 million less, they had come around to the idea of staying on Main Street by Tuesday’s meeting.

“What happens to us is we lose a prime opportunity here now with the interest rates down where they’re at,” said Assessor Dan Anderson, who initially supported moving the courthouse. “I’m afraid if we drag our feet, it just puts us back further.”

Commission Chairman Douglas Zenner agreed, warning that procrastination could kill the project.

“We have a short window to take advantage of the money and to sit and wait sends the wrong message,” Zenner said. “It’s going to cost us more money. I’m ready to move.”

Commissioner Douglas Havens wasn’t sure there was a need to rush, expressing confidence that interest rates would continue to be low well into the future. And while he advocated a cautious approach, County Auditor-Recorder Patty O. Weeks said the cost of materials and labor would only continue to climb during any delay.

Estimates of the cost for a new courthouse at the existing location range from $44.7 million to $46.5 million. Weeks said construction can be funded through the use of certificates of participation, a form of bond financing where certificate holders pay for the project and the county buys the building through lease payments. A typical term to repay the debt is 30 years, she said, and the county can make payments with the funding freed up by the recent retirement of the bond to build the jail in North Lewiston.

“We’re truly in a really good position to move forward and not have to go out and say, ‘We need this special bond levy for extra money,’” she said. “We can do this within our means.”

Beautiful Downtown Lewiston Executive Director Courtney Kramer said keeping the courthouse downtown is a critical component of the continued revitalization of the historic area. She pledged to work with the county to ensure the new courthouse isn’t just an office building, but a neighborhood amenity.

“The presence of city, county and state office buildings downtown creates a civic district that is a destination for community members that brings people downtown for business at the courthouse,” Kramer said. “And that then spills over to lunches and retail shopping.”

Beck said reusing the downtown site has the added attraction of not taking private property off the tax rolls. But it does have some major drawbacks, including the lack of space. Lewiston officials have expressed willingness to work with the county, including waiving some parking requirements, vacating the block of 12th Street just south of Main Street and selling the adjacent green space to the county.

The location of the Lewiston Police Department will be a tougher problem to solve, however. The county would like to have the land for either parking or building, and city officials have said the station’s current location is less than ideal. But a move doesn’t currently appear to be a front-burner issue for the city.

“The city council was very supportive of keeping the courthouse downtown, so I think this is a good opportunity to work out a plan to make it happen,” Lewiston City Manager Alan Nygaard said in an email to the Lewiston Tribune. “Moving the police station will require some planning and we have not done any planning thus far. So it is difficult to say anything about timing or the feasibility of moving the station.”

Zenner said he is willing to move forward in spite of the police station issue and let a future group of county elected officials deal with acquiring the property for a possible expansion.

“Right now our concern should be the courthouse and what it means for the citizens,” he said.

Havens said that while he is in favor of keeping the courthouse downtown, he would like to see the police station move sooner rather than later. He expressed hope that the newly elected members of the Lewiston City Council would move in that direction. He also said he doesn’t like the idea of closing the block of 12th Street and buying the green space from the city.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.

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