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Commissioners eye biggest capital project in county history

Step aside, Hendersonville High School, Pardee Health Sciences Center, Edneyville Elementary School, emergency services headquarters and other big capital projects Henderson County taxpayers have paid for in recent years.

At $127 million, a massive Grove Street Courthouse and jail expansion would dwarf them all on its way to setting the record for capital spending.

“For us country folk, $127 million is a lot of chickens in the back of the truck — the largest capital expense project in this county’s history,” County Commission Chair Bill Lapsley said. The project follows the county’s $60 million investment in new construction and renovation of Hendersonville High School, which the courthouse-jail project would dethrone.

Lapsley noted that “for better or worse” he will have voted in favor of the two most expensive construction projects in county history if the board goes on to OK the courthouse-jail job. That’s not a certainty, although at this point to vote the project down would mean throwing out substantial time and money the county has already spent on a needs analysis, project scoping and development of options.

After they received both a courthouse and detention center needs assessment in January 2021, commissioners last April initiated a formal Request for Qualifications process. Chose to provide conceptual planning for preliminary design for additional space in both the jail and courthouse facilities was Fentress Architects, an international design firm with studios in Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.; and Houston. “Fentress is internationally known for innovative, award-winning design of airports, museums, convention centers, laboratories, higher education, civic and government buildings,” the firm says on its website.

If it goes forward, the project will result in a new higher profile and much more space in a combined facility housing judicial functions, the detention center and three major county departments. In addition to the jail and courtrooms, the facility includes the offices of the District Attorney, Clerk of Superior Court, Register of Deeds, Tax Administrator and Information Technology.

Following numerous meetings with stakeholders and tours of the jail and courthouse facilities, Fentress’s team developed three options for expansion of the facilities. Commissioners voted on Jan. 19 to move ahead with options that would result in:

  • A new six-story 94,315-square-foot annex, to be constructed immediately to the north of the existing courthouse, plus renovation of 40,564 square feet within the existing 99,100-square-foot courthouse.
  • Expansion of the existing Detention Center toward the east, including a new 61,000-square-foot jail annex, 8,768 square feet of major renovation work within the existing jail and 51,752 square feet of minor renovation work including patching and paint, potential lighting replacement and electronic security upgrades.

A discussion Monday night turned into a public haggling over the fee Fentress has proposed, which is $11.32 million, or 8.87 percent of the total construction cost of $127.6 million. A cost  comparison developed by county staff and Fentress showed the proposed fee to be second-lowest by percent among 12 courthouse or jail projects in six states.

The designers and engineers will manage the job from “initial contact all the way through the nitty gritty of every square inch to construction management,” Fentress principal Steven R. White told commissioners. The team would assemble “a whole host of special subject-matter experts, which range from acoustics to existing conditions to specialists in materials science, programmers, lighting, threat assessment and making the building as energy efficient as it can be” The firm would use “around 12 to 15 consultants that we have on board, all of which we’ve worked with before on courthouses so they’re very focused on how courthouses work. It’s not the first rodeo for any of these people that we have hand-picked.”

Although Lapsley started out by saying of the proposed $11.3 million fee, “I think it’s reasonable,” he went on to suggest a substantial reduction, to $10 million.

“So here we are with the largest capital improvement in our county’s history,” he said. “As we get to these negotiations, I just want to make sure that we don’t take it lightly. It’s a big number to us country folk and this board wants to get the best team together that we can. But we also want to make sure we get the best for the taxpayer because it’s the taxpayers that’s going to pay for this. This board holds the taxpayers’ money in high regard.”

White responded that renovation work is always more complicated, with more unknowns to confront, than fresh from-the-ground-up construction projects. He questioned what evidence Lapsley had to support lopping off $1.3 million from the design and construction management fee.

“That’s a fair question,” Lapsley responded. “My answer would be we’re negotiating.”

Commissioners took no action on the project but will take it up a later meeting. One reason to delay action was that Commissioner Michael Edney, an attorney who has been the board’s strongest advocate for the facility expansion, was out of town on vacation and unable to attend.