The heart of Swift County: Courthouse closed for renovation and services provided off-site
BENSON — Every corner of every closet in every office on every floor in the massive Swift County Courthouse is empty.
Aside from a couple thick-walled vaults where non-essential items are stored behind the heavy doors, there is currently nothing in the grand courthouse, which will remain closed until a renovation project is finished early next year.
The sorry shape of the courthouse — built in 1898 in Benson and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — was painfully evident once the clocks, calendars, desks, filing cabinets, employees and customers were gone.
"When we walked though and it was empty, you could really see the deferred maintenance," said Kelsey Baker, who in March began as Swift County Administrator.
"The poor old lady was just creaking," said Vicki Syverson, director of the Swift County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, describing the bare courthouse.
The building was emptied out June 26.
In July, crews began removing asbestos found in ceiling tiles, flooring and insulation.
This month, demolition and construction begins on a $3.59 million renovation project to make overdue infrastructure improvements, including replacing a failing heating and ventilation system and making safety and security improvements to the courtroom floor.
Judges, juries and defendants have all shared the same corridor with the public outside the courtrooms. The renovation project includes adding an elevator and changing the layout of the floor to provide separation of the the different parties until they enter the courtroom.
There will also be cosmetic changes that will preserve, and even enhance, the historic details of the courthouse.
"We're going to get rid of the 1970s renovation-feel and find more synergy between the modern design and the historic design," said Jonathan Loose, from Wold Architects and Engineers.
He said there is still life in the old courthouse and the renovations will reset that life.
"This is the beginning of the county's vision to bring Swift County into the modern day and look out to the future as well," Loose said.
The Swift County Commissioners spent at least two years studying the county's space needs before narrowing the scope of the project.
Unlike some counties that demolish their historic courthouses, Baker said, the commissioners in Swift County decided to invest money to preserve the courthouse by making it more functional.
"The courthouse is the heart of Swift County," Baker said.
The board approved a bid late last month for a $5.25 million bond to pay for the courthouse project, as well as improvements to the Countryside Public Health building.
Rather than trying to keep county services operating in the courthouse while renovation was underway, the decision was made to vacate the building and relocate services to temporary facilities during the project.
Even though entire departments and offices were moved, taxpayer services were not halted even one day during the transition, Baker said.
Most of the county services, including administration, tax, auditor, assessor, land records, veterans services, housing and rural development authorities and 4-H, are now located in a former drugstore on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Benson.
The Swift County Eighth District Court is located in a makeshift room in the basement of the law enforcement center, which is attached to the courthouse.
Decades' worth of county documents were either electronically scanned or packed up for the move, along with every piece of office equipment.
Baker said county staff was told to visualize what would happen if the courthouse was flipped on its side, and that anything that would be tossed about needed to be packed up.
"So every corner of every closet was cleaned out," she said.
Some non-essential items are being temporarily stored off-site and some supplies, such as old computer monitors and desks, were sold, recycled or disposed of.
Baker said about 3,000 pounds of excess "stuff" was permanently removed from the courthouse and will not be coming back. "Every time you turned around there was more stuff," she said.
Baker praised employees for continuing to offer customer services while packing up their own office equipment for the move.
"A lot of work went into getting us moved out of the courthouse that I think wasn't seen, or hasn't ever been publicized," she said, adding that staff maintained a positive attitude during the stressful transition.
"Everyone was a team throughout this, and still is," Baker said.