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Doing the courthouse shuffle.

The Wheels of Justice Gear Up for Move

IT CAN BE RATHER UNSETtling to move an institution, as Pulaski County officials and county courthouse staff are learning.

Starting May 22, about 250 people who work in the historic Pulaski County Courthouse were to be uprooted from what has been the house of county justice for more than a century, as judicial operations transfer to other buildings.

The move is necessary to accommodate a long-planned courthouse renovation project that carries a price tag of about $7 million.

Judges, their staffs and court clerks will take up temporary quarters at the KARK-TV building at Third and Center streets in downtown Little Rock.

The prosecuting attorney's office will move June 1 to its new, permanent home in the former Bale Chevrolet building at 122 S. Broadway.

All of the judicial offices should be operational at their new locations by June 7, and many before then.

The offices of the chancery and probate clerks, for example, were to be moved the weekend of May 21 and their offices opened in the KARK building May 24. The circuit clerk's office will need more time for moving and will be closed from May 26-28. It will reopen at its new location May 31.

Trials originally scheduled during the two-week period have been reset until the move is completed, but emergency hearings and meetings in judge's chambers will continue as necessary. Essential court filings also will be handled in some fashion.

"In an emergency, anything can be filed," says Pulaski County Circuit Judge David Bogard.

"They can literally come out to my home at 11 o'clock at night and say, 'Judge, this is the last day we can file something. Will you accept this?' ... You may have to work a little harder, but you can file things."

Bogard has helped coordinate the move among the various judicial staffs. He calls it "a necessary evil."

"No one wants to go through this trauma, and it is a trauma," he says. "You have to go over to KARK to see what we're moving into. I don't know how we're going to survive, to be honest with you ... This is just a dramatic change."

Cramped Quarters

Courthouse staff will have significantly smaller quarters in which to function while the renovation is completed. The project is expected to take about two years.

The Pulaski County Chancery Court staff will occupy the second floor of the KARK building, while the Pulaski County Circuit Court staff will be on the third floor.

Makeshift courtrooms have been created on both floors of the temporary quarters to accommodate trials. Bogard says the new, smaller courtrooms pose challenges for judges.

For example, at the courthouse he recently had a plea and arraignment hearing that drew about 60 people. About 15 were prisoners and the rest a mix of lawyers, family members of defendants and spectators.

"My courtroom |at the KARK building~ seats 15," Bogard says. "I had 15 prisoners |at the hearing~ alone. What are you going to do with the attorneys, the relatives, the bondsmen? I don't know."

But he acknowledges the renovation must be done. The historic, but antiquated, courthouse needs surgery.

Its windows leak and blow open during rainstorms, the plumbing is rusted and the wiring inadequate.

"I turned on my computer the other day and blew out the lights in the courtroom," Bogard says.

Sonny Simpson, the county's director of administrative services, has had the unenviable task of arranging the logistics of the courthouse move with county workers and the moving company, Gathright Van & Storage Co. in Maumelle.

Simpson says it's been difficult at times to accommodate the requests and inquiries from courthouse staff. He has drawn the line occasionally.

"It's been fun," he says wryly. "There have been times when |County Judge F.G. "Buddy" Villines~ has had to say ... that this is the way things have got to be and let's move on."

Long Time Coming

The move has been on the drawing boards for some time.

In 1987, the Pulaski County Quorum Court began setting aside a portion of county taxes for the renovation project. This was after county leaders had considered the pros and cons of a new building.

The quorum court ultimately decided that the courthouse complex, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, should be overhauled to house all judicial operations. The complex consists of two separate but adjoined buildings, one built in 1887, the other in 1917.

After determining the fate of the courthouse, county leaders selected three architectural firms to help configure the various aspects of the move.

Witsell Evans & Rasco Architects-Planners of Little Rock, along with Burt Taggart & Associates Inc. of North Little Rock, have helped the county find temporary quarters and will handle all architectural details of the renovation.

Cromwell Architects/Engineers Inc. of Little Rock is providing engineering services.

The renovation will involve extensive work on the building's interior and exterior, including the restoration of the older building's clock tower.

Among the other projects will be a complete overhaul of the building's mechanical system; reassignment of the clerks' offices to the first floor; and the addition of more courtrooms, including one in what is now the prosecuting attorney's office.

Some other changes will make the courtroom better suited for changing times.

The building will be brought into compliance with the recently implemented Americans With Disabilities Act. And to address modern-day concerns about courthouse security, an elevator to be used strictly for the transportation of prisoners will be added.

"We have to bring them up now on the public elevator, which is terribly dangerous," Bogard says. "It's just abysmal security."

But before the transformation can begin, asbestos removal must take place.

"Asbestos was acceptable |then~, so all the materials had some form of asbestos," Simpson says. "It's going to be a major project to get it asbestos free, so that you then can have your workers come in and relocate some of the walls and do some of the other things that the plan calls for."

In between trials and other routine courthouse business, employees have been expanding their job description by gradually packing up their belongings and boxing records in preparation for the move.

Simpson says some county employees have arranged to take vacation time during the period but most will be actively participating in the move.

Courthouse staffers have resigned themselves to the inconvenience, believing the hassle will be worthwhile after the renovation is complete, Simpson says.

"Once they took the position that they would be repaid for the inconvenience of moving out by having a new court of which they could be very proud, they've been exceptionally cooperative in trying to work through this thing," he says.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:renovation of the Pulaski County Courthouse
Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 24, 1993
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