Douglas County commissioners weigh renovation options for meeting room improvements to get ready for commission expansion

photo by: Courtesy of Douglas County

This vintage photograph of the Douglas County Courthouse was presented by TreanorHL to commissioners on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.

Douglas County commissioners soon will need to decide if accommodations for two additional commissioners in the courthouse’s meeting chamber warrant more than $1 million in new construction costs.

Commissioners are still awaiting official cost estimates, but roughly $1.38 million has been allocated within the county’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) budget for upgrades to the commission’s meeting room. While the renovations are still in the preliminary planning phase, the CIP document provided to commissioners shows the target completion date for the renovations as fall of 2024.

The expansion of the Douglas County Commission from three members to five was approved by voters in November 2022 and will take effect in January 2025. Commissioners have cited the impending change as the primary rationale for renovating the meeting room.

Commissioners received their first briefing on the project at their meeting on Wednesday, but they didn’t say much about whether they are on board with spending more than $1 million on meeting room improvements to accommodate the two new commissioners. Commission Chair Patrick Kelly, in response to a question from the Journal-World, did not indicate whether he believed the potential price tag was justified.

“What was shared with the (board) on Wednesday was the first discussion we have had about renovations to the meeting space that must take place as a result of the community’s desire to move from three to five commissioners,” Kelly said. “All three commissioners communicated that the scope of the project could be impacted by the projected costs.”

The $1.38 million set aside for the upgrades is one of the largest 2023 CIP allocations.

Since the goal is to make space for the new commissioners before the expansion, the project’s timeline is critical, and County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said she was “very concerned” about it.

“It’s a priority, obviously, for us to do this before January of 2025,” she said, also noting that a plan was being devised for where commission meetings would take place during the renovations.

Representatives of TreanorHL, a local architectural consulting firm tabbed by commissioners as the project manager, presented a pair of renovation design options during the County Commission’s meeting Wednesday evening.

TreanorHL’s preference, which is likely the more expensive of the two options, calls for a return to the way the room was laid out in the early 20th century. It would shift the dais — the bench-like structure where commissioners sit — to the south side of the room, which would also give members of the public an additional entrance to the room: a door that currently is located beside the dais and is mainly used by commissioners and county staff.

The other option TreanorHL presented would keep the current arrangement intact but refurbish major pieces of furniture.

TreanorHL consultant Joy Coleman provided commissioners with findings from a recently concluded study of the meeting space. She told commissioners that a return to the “fabulous” 1913 layout would be the better option, and while she had few details related to how the dais would be expanded, she did say that it would be done in a “sympathetic” and “appropriate way” that would aim to preserve its historical integrity.

photo by: Courtesy of Douglas County

This photo shows a meeting at the Douglas County Courthouse from the mid-1950s.

In order to improve the chamber’s sound, Coleman recommended an acoustic/plaster ceiling and for the walls to be outfitted with acoustic paneling and new speakers. She also said that the walls could be adorned with vintage pictures of the courthouse, or that they could just go with a “plain look.” Also, TreanorHL determined that a central chandelier found in an early photo of the room would be aesthetically pleasing as they attempt to replicate the original design, and that the chandelier resembles the one in the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Commissioner Karen Willey asked Coleman about when cost estimates would be finalized for the two options: “At what point do we attach a price tag to option 1 and 2?” But Coleman was unable to provide a definitive timetable.

Coleman instead pivoted to aspects of the project that could require additional resources and thus extend the timetable. For example, the 1913 layout would require significant electrical rewiring of the room. Many other components of the plan were discussed, forcing commissioners to put on their design hats. Kelly noted that the 1913 setup would conceal much of the room’s natural lighting, mainly due to the relocation of the jury box.

“This setup makes the most of the windows,” Kelly said of the current look. Kelly later determined that “trade-offs” would need to be made in order to return the room to its grand turn-of-the-20th-century look.

No action was taken by commissioners on the renovation discussion, but Commissioner Shannon Reid said that because of the historical overview, it was “a really fun agenda packet to read through.”

“Those don’t come too frequently, so thanks for that,” Reid said.

photo by: Courtesy of Douglas County

This vintage photo of the Douglas County Courthouse was displayed during TreanorHL’s presentation to Douglas County Commissioners on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. TreanorHL consultant Joy Coleman noted the flooring style in the photo.

While the question of how much the project should cost is still to be decided, the county does have ample funds to pay for the project in its CIP.

The county started the year with a $39.2 million fund balance in its capital improvement budget and is expected to finish the year with $25.2 million in the fund as it completes a variety of road and bridge and facility projects.


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