A proposal to relocate the Thurston County Courthouse to downtown Olympia appears to be gaining some traction.
In recent months, Thurston County District Court Presiding Judge Brett Buckley and Thurston County Superior Court Presiding Judge Carol Murphy have pitched their idea — which they say could bring some much-needed economic development to downtown Olympia — to numerous groups including the Port of Olympia, the Union Gospel Mission, the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce and several members of the Olympia City Council.
“Everybody I’ve talked to seems to think, ‘Yeah, this is something that might really work,’ ” Buckley said.
In fact, Buckley will talk about the idea during a forum at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Caldonia Building, 116 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia. The event, sponsored by the Olympia Downtown Association, is open to the public.
Buckley said the county’s District Court facilities, which were built in 1978, are crowded and unsafe.
“We only have half of the space we need,” Buckley said. “We constantly have to go to Superior Court to borrow a courtroom.”
The courts are struggling with several safety issues, too, Buckley said. For example, in Building 2, inmates who are going from lock-up to court are led through a hallway that passes by judges’ chambers and jury rooms.
In addition, if the county’s new jail, the Accountability and Restitution Center, opens later this year as scheduled, the remote-access hearings will prove troublesome because the courthouse lacks the needed cabling and bandwidth, Buckley said.
Meantime, the Board of County Commissioners is “interested in all of the possibilities,” according to Thurston County manager Cliff Moore.
“Last year, we did an evaluation of the space needs and the square footage needs,” he said. “... I think everyone recognizes that this space up here is a bit inadequate and we need to do something.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners voted 3-0 to advertise a request for qualifications to select an architectural-engineering consultant to evaluate court security in Buildings 2 and 3 of the courthouse complex.
The study is expected to cost about $40,000, and will be funded from existing bond proceeds.
Commissioners also voted 3-0 to advertise for a firm to conduct a comparative feasibility study that would evaluate the costs and benefits of remodeling existing courthouse complex structures, compared with constructing or acquiring new courthouse facilities in the city of Olympia. That study, which is estimated to cost about $125,000, also will be funded with existing bond proceeds.
Noting that everything is still very early in the process, Moore said there are several ideas being floated around to improve the courthouse complex, which also houses the county’s administration and several of its departments. One of the concepts involves a public-private partnership, which would allow a private entity to build a parking garage and office buildings in downtown Olympia that could be leased by the county, he said.
“There’s also the question on whether the whole county complex goes downtown, or just the courts,” Moore added.
The Olympia City Council hasn’t had a conversation about the relocation, but city manager Steve Hall said he believes “they would much welcome the county’s investment.”
“I think we stand ready to work with the county in exploring this idea,” he said. “It’s an idea that’s definitely worth exploring between the two jurisdictions.”
Meantime, Vida Zvirzdys-Farler, executive director of the Olympia Downtown Association, agrees that relocating the county’s services to downtown would be a strong economic boost for the area.
Just moving the courts alone would bring 220 employees during the week, and about 6,000 jurors a year, Buckley said. There are also many people who go to the courthouse on a daily basis, including lawyers, witnesses and interested parties.
“I think it’s a great idea because of the amount of people that are going to be coming in — the professionals,” Zvirzdyz-Farler said. “There’s always that unknown, of what clientele that it attracts. … Those people are downtown anyway, but with the courthouse being there, then you’ll have the (extra) security.”