County officials back plan to build courthouse in downtown Olympia

The current Thurston County complex on Lakeridge Drive Southwest.
The current Thurston County complex on Lakeridge Drive Southwest. Olympian file photo, 2009

Thurston County’s elected leaders say they support moving the county courthouse and offices to downtown Olympia.

Olympia leaders say hold that thought.

County commissioners met Tuesday with various elected officials to discuss plans to build a new complex. The options are to:

  • Build on the current site of Olympia’s Lee Creighton Justice Center on Plum Street Southeast near downtown;

  • Build on undeveloped land at Harrison Avenue Northwest and Kaiser Road Southwest on the city’s west side; or to

  • Renovate and expand the current complex on Lakeridge Drive Southwest.

No decision was made Tuesday. Commissioners will hold a closed-door meeting next week to discuss the options and make a decision in a public meeting after that.

Most of the elected leaders — including the county prosecutor, assessor, treasurer, auditor and judges — told commissioners they liked how accessible the Plum Street site would be for people coming on public transportation. They also liked the possibility of partnering with the city of Olympia, which would house its municipal court in the new building, and promoting economic development in the area.

Some also predicted it would be the most likely site to win voter approval.

“It was a mistake to build it up here 40 years ago. Building it here again will just double down on that same mistake,” Judge Brett Buckley, presiding judge at Thurston County District Court, said of the current courthouse site.

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby asked the commissioners to hold off a few weeks before making a decision, noting it was only last week the City Council got a look at the options and the city’s potential role in the project.

“We are looking at potentially $20 (million) to $32 million that the city would need to bring to the table. We don’t currently have that amount of money in our budget, and it’s not on our capital facilities plan, which is a six-year planning document,” she said.

Selby also suggested that going to voters in August — which has been the county’s plan — was unrealistic for the city, suggesting November’s election was a better option.

Commissioner Gary Edwards said he is concerned about homelessness in downtown Olympia, suggesting people from other parts of the county don’t want to go downtown and voters won’t support building the courthouse there. He also raised concerns about the impact of sea level rise on the area.

“I’m painting a pretty bleak picture, but those are the downsides. Forty years ago, it would have been great. Fifteen years ago, it would have been great. … I think it is the ideal location if other things were ideal, which they’re not right now,” he said.

Looking at the other two options, commissioners predicted construction at the Harrison Avenue site would be the least disruptive to county and city services. But Commissioner Tye Menser, who took office last month, said he already is hearing concerns from neighbors of that site.

“There’s a residential mindset over there (and) I think it would be a transformation of that area that we’d have to think about and consciously want to do,” he said.

Construction on the current site would take the longest and would mean years of disruption for county and court operations. County Commission Chairman John Hutchings joked the only advantage to staying there is “people know we’re here.”

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.