For now, but not much longer, business continues as usual at the Faulkner County Courthouse. By February, court and other county operations should start moving into the new Faulkner County Criminal Justice Complex on South German Lane, according to County Judge Allen Dodson.
“For years, the existing courthouse has not fully met the needs of our county,” Dodson said. “County offices have been struggling for space for years and as a result are scattered around and nearby the courthouse grounds. Few county services are actually offered at the courthouse itself. So the question for years was, ‘what do we do? Where do we go from here?’”
A new building was first seriously considered more than 10 years ago during the administration of County Judge John Wayne Carter, and the plan was carried through to design and beginning of construction of the new complex during the term of Dodson’s predecessor, Preston Scroggin.
The new building will bring most of these functions back under one roof. Seven courtrooms with offices for all the county’s judges and their staff, Faulkner County Prosecuting Attorney’s offices, offices for Circuit Clerk and County Clerk operations, and offices for juvenile justice, victims’ services, the prosecutor’s hot check division and probation will fill its four floors. Dodson said that some county operations should begin there in the spring.
Dodson, an attorney himself, said that the biggest functional difference between the new courtrooms and those in use now is security. At the current courthouse, judges and prosecutors park in the same parking lot and take the same walk into the building as everybody else — it’s the only one there is. “The new building “bring(s) security from the near-19th century into the 20th century,” he said, with secure parking for judges and certain court personnel and a secure route to their offices and courtrooms. Also, holding cells are installed for some criminal defendants.
A 2008 study by Sowell and Russell Architects of a proposed $5.7 million renovation to the Faulkner County Courthouse found that 14,000 square feet were, or could be, usable space. Of this, the study found, about 10,600 square feet was useable office space. The remainder of the current courthouse’s square footage, which included such areas as a disused jail on the top floor and parts of the basement, was identified as storage space only. In short, Dodson said, about half of the current courthouse’s available space was useable for actual courthouse operations, “and there’s a problem when half of your courthouse is only deemed suitable for storage.”
The floorplan for the new building is worked out, and most of the people who are going to be moving in know more-or-less where they’ll be, Dodson said. Less clear is what will become of the current building.
The Faulkner County Courthouse is a Depression-era building completed in 1936. It is described in the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s online site (www.arkansaspreservation.com) as “significant by virtue of its status as the finest example in the county of (an) unusual combination of the Colonial Revival and Art Deco styles.” While this combination of syles is common to the region and period, the description continues, “it is not common for these styles to be so successfully blended into a single composition.” In 2009 the building was added to the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas’ list of “Six to be Saved: Arkansas’ Endangered Historic Places.”
It has been updated, but in recent years there have been some problems with the building’s electrical and plumbing systems and in some places it does show its age. A water line broke in the second-story Courtroom A restroom in October, 2008, and went undiscovered overnight, wreaking havoc on the County Clerk’s office and its paper records below and flooding the basement with several inches of water.
Demolition and redevelopment of the valuable land was an option on the table when the previous Scroggin administration was trying to decide what to do with the “old” courthouse. A May 12, 2009, Log Cabin Democrat editorial in favor of this option described the courthouse as “dilapidated” and an “eyesore.”
With Dodson’s administration, though, the tearing down the courthouse is “not an option.” The Faulkner County Criminal Justice Complex is needed and welcomed, he explained, but the Faulkner County Courthouse will remain the county’s Courthouse and its County Seat even after judicial and most county functions move out.
“I think we do a disservice to Faulkner County to reduce the argument to whether or not we should keep (the courthouse),” he said. “This is a currently functioning building and the County Seat of Faulkner County, Arkansas, and a figure and a symbol of this county as it has been for 77 or 78 years. Hopefully it will continue to be so for another 200 years or 300 years.
“Having said that, however, I would not be in favor of spending $6 million on it, and I don’t think we have to,” Dodson continued, referring to the 2008 Sowell and Russell renovation study. Dodson said in his opinion, many reports of dilapidation and damage are exaggerated and a basic repurposing of the courthouse for another use would fall far short of this study’s pricetag.
As for what purpose the Faulkner County Courthouse may serve after the Faulkner County Criminal Justice Complex is up-and-running, Dodson said he wasn’t ready to say. Using the open courtroom space on the second story as community meeting space has been discussed for as long as the question has been considered. This is an obvious use of the building, Dodson said, but beyond that, his administration hasn’t made any absolute decisions.
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)