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Courthouse-jail project has a number, and it's a big one

If commissioners OK a major judicial center expansion, a Courthouse addition would go up on what is now the northside parking lot. If commissioners OK a major judicial center expansion, a Courthouse addition would go up on what is now the northside parking lot.

By the end of their regular meeting on Wednesday morning, Henderson County commissioners will have on the table a very big number to build what would be by far the largest capital project in the county's history.

The cost estimate developed by a design-build construction team for the renovation and expansion of the Grove Street Courthouse and jail came in at $175 million. Add "soft costs" and the total would be closer to $200 million, commissioners said in interviews Thursday night.

The four elected board members who attended the annual awards dinner of the Partnership for Economic Development acknowledged the project cost is a huge number but in interviews with the Lightning said the projection did not surprise them. Commissioners ordered the cost estimate during a special called meeting in July.

The pricetag projection was produced by a construction management team formed by Hendersonville-based Cooper Construction Co. and Haskell Co., a global company based in Jacksonville, Florida, that was a pioneer in the design-build approach for major construction jobs. Haskell employs more than 1,600 architects, engineers, constructors and administrative professionals in some 20 offices across the U.S., Latin America and Asia that guide $1 billion a year in commercial and industrial projects, the company says on its website.

The engineers and estimators pegged the courthouse renovation and addition at $78.9 million and the jail renovation and expansion at $36 million. Other costs include sitework, contractor bonds, new construction, renovation and design contingencies and overhead and profit. The date for final completion of everything was forecast to be Oct. 29, 2027.

The estimate and schedule were based on "a blend of historical and current market data," Haskell said in the first lines of a 137-page report detailing the estimate. "Material shortages, supply chain disruptions and skilled labor shortages produce extreme and unpredictable market volatility. These factors create uncertainty in directional pricing and project timelines, both of which are exacerbated over time."

Commissioners said they're ready to hear the full report and eager for the opportunity to ask questions of the Haskell and Cooper team, which will present the estimate Wednesday morning.

“Now we'll go through and look at it, look at value engineering and all that kind of stuff," Commissioner Michael Edney said. "I know they’ve said they've got ideas on ways to save money and options. We knew it wasn’t going to be cheap to start with."

Edney, an attorney who has been the board's most vocal advocate for both the jail and courthouse expansions, made the case for moving forward now.

“It's absolutely necessary," he said of the combined project. "We can afford to do it without raising taxes. It's not gonna get any cheaper. Everybody tells me prices aren't gonna go down. It's a 31-month construction timeframe and you're gonna have natural growth (in jail inmates and courthouse use) over that three-year period no matter what.”

Commission Chair Rebecca McCall repeated what she has said before about the Judicial Center Addition and Renovation (JCAR) — that jail expansion is the higher priority of the two. She said that in addition to hearing the cost estimate, commissioners will want to hear a fresh report on the county's current debt service and its capacity to borrow up to $200 million to finance the job. One factor likely to come up: When the county borrowed $60 million for the Hendersonville High School new construction-renovation project — the current record-holder for the county's most expensive capital job — the bond market was favorable for borrowers. Interest rates today are much higher.

Commissioner Daniel Andreotta, along with David Hill, has expressed misgivings about the full JCAR pricetag when it was hovering around $150 million.

“Obviously I've got to dive deep and we're gonna talk about it,” Andreotta said.

Commissioner Bill Lapsley, a civil engineer who is the board's most knowledgable and aggressive interrogator of capital project estimators, planned to do his homework before Wednesday.

“I don't know whether this county can afford that," he said.

He said there are multiple paths to a compromise.

"We've got to vote to decide whether we want to proceed with a project of that scope or do we want to scale it back. My sense is we better scale it back." he said. "Now what does that mean? There’s two pieces to the project — the courthouse and jail — and so I think we've got to look at both of them separately — look at the jail and see is there any way we can cut that back, and then look at the courthouse addition and then see if we can save anything there.”

"And then once we do that then we gotta decide, do we still want to do both of them? Or do we want to leave one of them as is and scale the other one back, eliminate the other one? There’s all kinds of combinations. So we've just got to evaluate."

Lapsley expressed confidence in Haskell's work laying out the numbers.

"I think now we've got good solid cost estimates from a reputable contractor that knows pricing. Not that the architect’s numbers weren’t reasonable. They didn't get into the minutiae like we wanted," he said. “I didn't want to see us make this large an investment without having full faith in the numbers. Now that we've got those I think we can make some good decisions.”