City considering remodeling Missouri Room for court space

City officials are discussing the possible use of the Missouri Room in the Civic Center for the Municipal Court.

The court is currently located in the basement of the Civic Center and officials have been discussing for years the need for court space, especially since the city has added a new judge position.

During  the City Commission’s April 4 work session, Tony Houtz of Cushing Terrell presented some designs for a remodel of the basement or the Missouri Room for court space.

“As everybody knows, we’ve got to do something about the city court,” Houtz said.

In the current basement space, there’s not much space to expand and columns in the office space that can’t be moved limit the remodel options.

Looking at the existing space, “I won’t say that it works great,” Houtz said.

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He said in a remodel, they’d look at reconfiguring the space so staff has direct access to court and move jury and support rooms closer to the courtrooms.

Houtz also designed a remodel of the Missouri Room for the courts.

The high ceilings in the room are beneficial since they want 14-feet or higher to accommodate the elevated platforms typical in courtrooms.

There are no columns in the Missouri Room, giving the designers more options to configure courtroom spaces.

For two courtrooms, Houtz said the layout includes clear access ways through the hallway, increasing security and access.

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The space also allows them to put defense and jury rooms close to the courtrooms and increase functionality of the office space with lighting and access to the roof for ventilation and mechanical work.

There’s an ADA ramp and elevator on that side of the building, increasing access, Houtz said.

Houtz said that the city would lose the use of space for events, as well as the three meeting rooms off the main room, but if court moved upstairs, it would free up space in the basement for other uses.

Houtz said that’s an easier level of renovation and more conducive to operations.

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Houtz said the “use of the court seems to pair really well with that room.”

Mayor Bob Kelly asked about losing the space for public use and rentals.

City staff said rentals of the Missouri Room generate about $19,000 to $20,000 annually.

Kelly said that the city had set aside $3.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds for the court remodel and asked Houtz is that would be enough.

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Houtz said it should be enough to remodel the Missouri Room, but it wouldn’t be enough to remodel the basement.

City Manager Greg Doyon said that it’s been a long process finding space to expand the Municipal Court.

He said they’ve looked offsite for more space and thought they were close one or two times in acquiring more space.

They also looked at the Children’s Museum space, which is city owned and leased to the museum. That lease expires this fall and the museum is looking for a new home.

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Doyon said they knew court space would likely be eligible for APRA funds, but knew renovating the basement wouldn’t be ideal, so looked back at Civic Center space.

“No elected body as ever been willing to listen” to using the Missouri Room for anything other than public space, Doyon said.

He said the convention center wouldn’t be a good option and a new building is unlikely with the funds that have been set aside.

Owen Grubenhoff, Mansfield events manager, said that from their perspective of revenue generating event space, it would be more desirable to give up the commission chambers.

He said his department makes about $1,200 in rentals of the Gibson Room, which is another large meeting space in the Civic Center, where the commission holds their work sessions.

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Grubenhoff said that it’s a historical space that was originally a public art gallery and it “would be sad to see that public space…to see that loss.”

In an email to the Mansfield advisory board, Grubenhoff wrote that the Missouri Room is used for large multi-day events such as the C.M. Russell art auction, Organic Famers Association, Sheer Elite Dance competition and any one-time large conferences.

He wrote that the space a key intermediate size for events in the Civic Center and can seat 240 people in the Missouri Room.

The Gibson Room can seat 80 and the convention center seats 800.

The revenue generated by the Missouri Room rentals pays for a part-time employee, Grubenhoff said.

Commissioners didn’t ask Grubenhoff any questions during the meeting.

Mayor Bob Kelly said he’d had calls from the public about the sentimental value of the Missouri Room and some question whether the city competes with the private sector for event space.

“We have wandered down this road many times,” Kelly said.

The conditions in the current court space are “abominable,” he said, and that he’s interested in pursuing the use of the Missouri Room but wants to have options for the spaces and uses that would be displaced.

Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad said that the city had considered this move several times and construction of the Civic Center itself was controversial in 1930s, when it was built on a former park.

Bolstad said he didn’t mean any ill will to Grubenhoff or the Mansfield board, but that it would probably be their only change to upgrade the Municipal Court.

He said the basement would be a “money pit” to renovated.

Bolstad said the court sees hundreds of jurors a year, as well as witness and victims.

“I really do think that this could be a jewel for the city of Great Falls,” Bolstad said, and the court “will be good stewards” of the space.