Historic preservation board opposes use of Missouri Room for court space

The city-county Historic Preservation Advisory Commission met on May 10 and discussed the proposal to remodel the Missouri Room in the Civic Center for Municipal Court.

Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad and his staff attended the meeting that included the proposal on the agenda, though he said the commission and city staff had not notified him of the discussion or invited him to the meeting.

City Commissioner Joe McKenney also attended the meeting.

McKenney gave a brief overview of the city’s history regarding the search for space in the Civic Center.

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He said a previous city attorney had requested use of the Gibson Room for legal space, but that was not supported by commissioners.

The city planning department had also requested use of the Missouri Room for office space, a request that was also not supported by commissioners.

McKenney said the city had considered using the Children’s Museum building for space, since their lease expires this fall and the building is city-owned, but “there wasn’t a political will to tell the Children’s Museum, you’re outta here.”

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He said the museum is looking for a new location and is in discussions to use the Stray Moose building in Black Eagle.

McKenney said the building currently occupied by the museum “needs a lot of work” and is not available at this time.

He said the city had also looked at space in Railroad Square, the old Montana Power Building, the Chamber of Commerce building, HUB International, the federal post office and the old Tribune building.

McKenney said that for one reason or another, none of those options worked.

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Funding is always tough, he said, but he didn’t understand how tough until he became a commissioner.

He said that for any city department currently in the Civic Center to go off-site, the best option would be the planning department.

McKenney said that it’s best to keep the legal staff in one spot in the Civic Center.

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The second judge is slated to be elected in November and assume office in January so the city has a need for a second courtroom and additional office space.

McKenney said he’s on board with looking at the Missouri Room for the court space.

“Change isn’t new,” he said, and there used to be a skating rink in the Civic Center.

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He said they want to preserve the historical integrity of the Missouri Room, but it’s “time to make a decision.”

Bolstad said he knows the history of the Civic Center and that not much has changed about the Municipal Court.

He said he paid a ticket in high school in the same spot.

Bolstad that the work load is not decreasing and the second judge means they need an additional courtroom to work simultaneously.

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He said they use the Commission Chambers now when needed, but they don’t have an office for second judge or room for staff.

They’ve been looking for more space for at least the last five years, Bolstad said, but there were challenges of funding and logistics.

He said court operations slowed during COVID and their docket backup, so they qualified for some ARPA funds for new courtroom space.

The funding requires that they purchase the space and/or make a capital investment, he said.

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Bolstad said they looked at using the former federal court space upstairs at the post office, but it would separate files and clerks, and the court space is already in use by the District Court’s veteran treatment court.

City Manager Greg Doyon told The Electric in February that the veterans court fees are $4,000 per month, “which is quite hefty.”

City staff looked at a plan to remodel the basement for court, which also has challenges.

Bolstad said they’ve had four floods in the last five years in the basement court space.

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“We’ve pushed on,” Bolstad said, but now that they’re getting another judge, have a heavy workload, and got some ARPA funds, the need for additional space is immediate.

Bolstad said he hears that the people in court aren’t good people, to which he said they see everything from parking tickets to partner family member assault.

The Municipal Court does not handle felony charges, only misdemeanors.

He said they call 150 jurors weekly for trials, as well as witness, and “we see all walks of life. It is an extension of this community. It is the city’s form of justice.”

Ellen Sievert, an HPAC member and the city’s former historic preservation officer, said that the court would be better placed in the Convention Center with an outside entrance.

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She said she can’t see the court traffic coming through the whole building.

Bolstad and court staff said court traffic is already coming through the building and it wouldn’t be a significant change as they could use the northside doors close to the elevator and go up the stairs on that side of the building to court.

Several HPAC members asked if the city had conducted a historic preservation review, which is required in many cases when using federal funds.

The city has already started multiple improvement projects using ARPA funds in the Civic Center, which is a historic building, and HPAC did not publicly raise concerns about a historic preservation review.

Tom Hazen, the city’s grand administrator, said the ARPA funds are considered local and not federal for historic preservation purposes, so there is no historic preservation review required.

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“The city is, however, taking strides to ensure that any features that reflect a historic character are preserved,” Hazen said, and that his office is working with the city’s historic preservation officer to “make sure that projects undertaken in any of the city’s properties to not jeopardize historic registration status.”

Rich Ecke, HPAC member, asked which city staff member would know how much revenue use of the Convention Center and Missouri Room generates.

The Convention Center and Missouri Room are managed by the city’s events department and their staff was not present at the meeting, nor did staff in the meeting have that information available.

Owen Grubenhoff, events manager, said during previous commission meetings that the Missouri Room generates $19,000 to $20,000 annually.

He told The Electric that the Convention Center has generated about $50,000 in rental revenue this year.

A normal year would be about $75,000, he said, but they haven’t gotten all of their business back from COVID yet.

Morgan Medvec, Municipal Court supervisor, told HPAC members that using the Commission Chambers for court isn’t practical since it doesn’t fit two courtrooms or office space, nor is their a secure entrance for staff moving files from the basement for hearings.

Ken Sievert, HPAC member and retired architect, said that he supports the court, “but I’m not sure this is a solution.”

HPAC members suggested that the city consider using the Convention Center, Children’s Musuem building, post office or old county jail building for Municipal Court.

The county completed abatement work in the old jail, but it would need significant work to be useable for court space, and the county would have to be willing to sell the property to the city.

The HPAC voted to recommend that the city commission reconsider the prospect of using the Missouri Room for court space and consider alternatives.