Courthouse towers over downtown; completion set for late 2006

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Windows of the atrium to the new United States Courthouse are almost completed. (Diane L. Wilson)

From the outside, it looks done. But interior walls have yet to go up as construction continues on the 150,000-square-foot brick behemoth that will become Cape Girardeau's new federal courthouse by year's end.

The new $50 million structure at Independence and Frederick streets dominates the skyline even though completion is about 10 months away.

The massive, window-filled structure with its four-story, domed atrium already is a landmark to passing motorists even though it has yet to open its doors for public use.

Construction of the interior walls and offices in the new courthouse will be handled under a separate contract.

Federal officials divided the project into two parts to keep the whole project within budget. The government acted after general contractor PCL Construction of Denver warned that the cost of interior construction work could climb to about $13 million, or about $4 million more than the government had budgeted.

Construction began about a year ago. General Services Administration officials in Kansas City are pleased with the construction progress.

Brad Scott, regional administrator of the General Services Administration office in Kansas City, said federal court staff should move into the building in December.

"We are driven by economics to get this thing done as quickly as we can," he said.

That's because the GSA generates its operating revenue from the federal agencies that pay rent in the buildings it operates and maintains.

Nothing is cheap when it comes to constructing a courthouse. "You are not building a big box out on green space," said Scott. "You are building a state-of-the-art building. You have a lot of security enhancements."

GSA officials said the new courthouse and its steel-beamed frame are designed to withstand terrorist bombs.

City officials have heralded the new courthouse as another major anchor for the revitalization of downtown. But getting this far wasn't easy.

Rough start

The project, which was in the planning stages for nearly a decade, was beset by design problems at one point. In 2001, the General Services Administration canceled its contract with a Chicago architectural firm for design of the new building after having already spent half a million dollars.

The design featured an atrium and skylight that would have been left open in the summer. The atrium wouldn't have been air-conditioned.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, shot down the plan, saying she wouldn't vote to spend money to build a courthouse in Cape Girardeau that wasn't fully air-conditioned.

The final design, generated from a design competition and involving input from U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh Sr. and Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce president John Mehner, features a red brick exterior meant to complement the city's historic downtown neighborhood.

Scott said his agency also has stayed in touch with Emerson and U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent.

"They have held our feet to the fire," Scott said. "They have been a great sounding board."

Scott thinks city and civic leaders will approve of the new courthouse. "We feel like ultimately this will be a building that the whole community can be proud of," he said.

The new courthouse towers over Cape Girardeau's longtime city hall, which sits just to the east. A roundabout will allow traffic to flow to the courthouse property or to the parking lot behind city hall.

Indoor parking

The courthouse will have indoor parking for 24 vehicles and a surface parking lot for 100 cars.

The federal court and other judicial-related agencies will employ nearly 100 people in the new courthouse. In addition to the federal court clerk and judges, the courthouse will house federal prosecutors and the U.S. Marshal's office.

Emerson's Cape Girardeau staff is expected to move into the new courthouse too. Emerson's local office currently is housed in the Federal Building at 339 Broadway.

Lloyd Smith, Emerson's chief of staff, said the congresswoman thinks the new courthouse will provide more secure and earthquake-resistant office space. Emerson and her staff must consider security needs in dealing with the threat of terrorism, Smith said.

Smith said the GSA offered to lease space for a congressional office in the new courthouse at the same cost as the current rent in the Federal Building. That helped convince Emerson to relocate her office, Smith said.

The GSA doesn't plan to keep the current Federal Building after the new courthouse opens. Once workers move into the new courthouse there won't be enough other federal offices remaining to warrant keeping the nearly 40-year-old building, said Jim Ogden, GSA deputy regional administrator in Kansas City.

Ogden said the building will be offered to other federal agencies first, but they most likely won't want to own it either.

"At that point we would make the building available to state and local governments," he said. The offer also would extend to agencies that provide services to the homeless.

In Joplin, Mo., a former federal courthouse is now home to a not-for-profit organization that operates a health clinic and provides other social services, Ogden said.

The goal, he said, is to allow the building to continue to serve a public use.

The GSA has discussed the future use of the Federal Building with both Cape Girardeau County and city officials. One possibility is to use it for county offices, but nothing has been finalized.

335-6611, extension 123

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