And justice for all

Thursday, October 31, 2002


The coal mines are closed and city officials these days are mining for a different treasure -- a new federal courthouse that is projected to be larger and cost more than Cape Girardeau's planned courthouse 70 miles away.

"It is a huge economic engine for us," said Benton Mayor Pat Bauer, who runs a cafe and picture frame business on the town square within blocks of where she hopes a new federal building will be constructed. "It would probably be the biggest project since some of the coal mine development years ago," she said.

The General Services Administration, the agency charged with maintaining and building federal buildings, has proposed building a 180,000-square-foot courthouse in Southern Illinois at a cost of about $70 million. The cost includes design, site acquisition and construction.

By comparison, the GSA is proceeding with plans to build a 155,000-square-foot courthouse at Independence and Frederick in Cape Girardeau at a cost of over $50 million. The agency originally projected spending $55 million, but officials say the project could come in a few million dollars less.

Both courthouses would replace existing federal buildings. Cape Girardeau's existing courthouse was built in 1968; Benton's in 1958. Federal judges say they're not large enough to handle the increased caseload.

Brad Scott, regional administrator for the GSA in Kansas City, Mo., said the needs of each district court determines the size of each new courthouse. "It is a demand-driven process," he said.

The cost varies too because of differing labor costs around the country, he said.

Benton and Cape Girardeau are an hour-and-a-half drive apart over a meandering route of state and federal highways.

Both are located along major north-south interstates. Benton, which has a population of just under 7,000, is on Interstate 57; Cape Girardeau, with a population of more than 35,000, is on Interstate 55.

But the Benton project is administered by the GSA's office in Chicago while the Cape Girardeau project is under the control of the GSA's Kansas City office.

The Cape Girardeau project is much further along than the one at Benton, which is still in the early planning stages and has yet to be funded, GSA officials said. Marion and later Herrin, Ill., made pleas to bring the Southern District courthouse to their towns, but three of the four federal judges in the district recently voted in favor of keeping construction of a new federal courthouse in Benton, leaving it the frontrunner.

The GSA is preparing to choose a design-construction group to draw up plans for the Cape Girardeau courthouse and build it. A contract could be awarded by February, assuming Congress approves final funding later this month, said Buster Rosser, assistant regional administrator for the GSA in Kansas City.

The funding process requires a three-month wait from the time the budget is approved to when a contract can be awarded, Rosser said.

A committee of GSA staff, representatives from federal court, outside architects and Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce president John Mehner will review the preliminary designs as part of the selection process. Mehner said the agency forbids committee members from discussing the design competition until a contract is awarded.

Construction could begin anywhere from three to six months after a contract is awarded, he said. Construction and final planning work could cost over $49 million, officials have said.

The Cape Girardeau courthouse could be open by April 2006, he said. The project has been on the drawing board since the early 1990s.

The federal government broke ground on the project in July on the nearly four-acre site, eight years and $2.5 million after it began looking at sites for the new courthouse. Some preliminary site work has been done and an abandoned building demolished.

The spending to date includes $1.8 million to buy and prepare the nearly four-acre site.

Awaiting funding

That's not the case with the Benton project.

Money for design work and site acquisition won't be funded before 2004, officials said. The schedule envisions construction starting in 2006 and being completed by 2008 at the earliest. But officials with the GSA's Chicago office, which is in charge of the project, say the timetable is far from certain.

"There is a lot of competition for courthouse money," said David Wilkinson, a spokesman for the GSA regional office in Chicago.

"If history is any kind of prologue of what lies ahead, the smaller projects get crowded out," he said.

Bauer hopes that doesn't happen in her hometown. A new courthouse would mean more jobs, she said. Bauer said federal courthouse jobs could increase from the current 60 or 70 to over 100.

The Benton area was once home to coal mines. But federal environmental regulations put an end to the mining of high-sulfur coal in the mid-1990s, said Richard Hart, a longtime lawyer and former state lawmaker in Benton.

Now Bauer, Hart and others are touting a 10-acre site on the southeast corner of the town square as the site for a new federal courthouse.

"To me, it is the key to renovation of the downtown," Hart said. Stores have moved out of the downtown area, he said. That could change with the construction of a new federal courthouse, he said.

Hart's office is in a building on the town square that once was headquarters for a local coal mine. The Franklin County Courthouse sits in the center of the square, just across the street from his office.

Bauer and Hart hope to see the old county courthouse renovated as a museum and the county offices moved to the existing federal building, a no-frills, 1950s-era building not far from the square.

But the proposed downtown site is one of three possible sites in the Benton area, all of which have drawn criticism from U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy, who has said the community isn't racially diverse and that a new courthouse should be built in Williamson County, which has a larger minority population.

Murphy also has said federal funding should be cut back in communities that lack racial diversity.

Bauer dismisses such criticism. She said the city is situated in the center of the 38 Southern Illinois counties that are served by the district court.

She's convinced the new courthouse will be built in Benton as planned. Three of the four federal judges that hold court in Benton want a new courthouse.

But the GSA's Wilkinson said any disagreement over a possible site could put the brakes on the project.

While site questions remain with the Benton project, the Cape Girardeau courthouse project is moving ahead despite past design problems.

The GSA settled on a "design-build" process to speed up the project after U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson objected to the design work of a Chicago architectural firm. With such a process, the government plans to award a single contract to an architect and contractor that will work together as a team throughout the entire project.

The GSA's Rosser said that allows construction work to start even before the design is finished.

Emerson last year objected to the design work of Ross, Barney and Jankowski. The firm had proposed a new courthouse with an atrium and skylight that would have been left open in the summer. The atrium wouldn't have been air conditioned.

The federal government paid the firm nearly $500,000 before canceling the contract.

Now, the GSA is preparing to choose between three teams of contractors and architects, who are each being paid $75,000 to draw up preliminary plans for the courthouse.

The three groups are: Clayco Construction and Cannon Architects of St. Louis; contractor J.E. Dunn of Kansas City and the Boston architectural firm of Kullman, McKinnel and Wood; and contractor PCL of Denver and the Fentress architectural firm of Denver.

The Southern Illinoisan contributed to this report.

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