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Courthouse Work to Begin in November


Though county offices were closed for Presidents Day on Monday, Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson and his team were hard at work in his office, strategizing how to handle the logistics of the Blytheville courthouse renovation project.

Last Tuesday, voters approved a referendum that extends the ½-cent hospital tax for 30 years, with 1/3  of those funds going towards $14 million in renovations to the Blytheville courthouse and $2 million in work at the Osceola courthouse.

Nelson expects work to begin on the Blytheville courthouse in November and the project to take about two years to complete after the first hammer is swung.

County leaders plan to ask the Arkansas Northeastern College Board of Trustees if they can use the old ANC vocational-technical building in Burdette for offices and court. Senator Dave Wallace (R-Leachville) has already pushed a bill through the Arkansas Senate that would temporarily move the Chickasawba Judicial District line to Burdette. That bill is currently in the House.

If the ANC board and legislators give the county the green light, Nelson anticipates moving the county offices to the old vo-tech in the near future.

"We will start the moving process here very soon," Nelson said Monday afternoon. "I can't tell you exactly; we're going to go back to the college and talk with (ANC president) Dr. (James) Shemwell and let him know that referendum passed and that we feel like it would be in the best interest of Mississippi County to be out there and let him schedule some time with the board of trustees. Once we get that answer back, if it's positive, we will probably build a plan on moving each individual office and designate their office space there."

To stay in the Blytheville courthouse until the work is completed, it would have cost about 15 percent of the project's expense, he said.

Nelson noted the Blytheville courthouse will have to be emptied before work begins. An Information technology specialist will have a short time to move the intranet and computer equipment for the county to have a seamless transition to the temporary facility.

"We're going to be in a situation where at the end of the day Friday we're going to move and then we've got to be open first of the day Monday," Nelson said. "That's a pretty big undertaking. We're going to have to have everybody in place and everybody knowing how we're going to do it. We're just going to have to make the move all at once."

The first step in the project is securing an architect to oversee all of the work.

The county will seek letters of interests from firms and send out at least three requests for qualifications (RFQs) to those selected nominees, according to Nelson.

 "Our plans for proceeding on renovating both the Blytheville and Osceola courthouses, alongside expanding the Blytheville courthouse, consist of several phases," Nelson said. "Using local and statewide publications, we will begin to advertise the county's need for an architect to oversee the project."

Nelson expects to receive numerous letters of interest from potential architects.

"We will review those requests and choose an architect to oversee the entire project," he said.  "For the Osceola courthouse, a commission of interested individuals will be formed to supervise the renovation and to provide input on how and where to make the capital improvements necessary to update the building. We will then start the bidding process for contractors and that normally takes six weeks or longer to complete. During the final design process, we look forward to working closely with judges, the Blytheville and Osceola Bar Associations, the Sheriff's Department, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, and any concerned citizens who want to have their voice heard during the is process. We will be looking at ways to implement a plan that will maximize the amount of Mississippi County residents hired during this construction project. In addition, we are currently developing a plan to re-locate essential offices and personnel to ensure that all Mississippi County services remain easily accessible to the public during the construction phase of the Blytheville courthouse."

According to Nelson, judges and attorneys want four courtrooms with two of them large enough to hold jury trials.

"We're not going to get there with these plans," Nelson said. "It's not going to be possible, but we are going to ask them back in."

The Mississippi County Circuit Court judges' biggest concern is security and the lack thereof at the current Blytheville courthouse, the county judge added.

Nelson noted the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program is involved in the Blytheville courthouse project because the county wants to sign a contract with the organization that allows it to receive future grants.

The county signed an agreement with AHPP years ago for the Osceola courthouse and has received some $250,000, Nelson said.

"If we can have those funds for both buildings, that will help us maintain them," Nelson said. "That's something we have been lacking. Once we get these improvements made, I think it will take us many years down the road."

He added the county plans to use local labor as much as possible.

"If it turns out we are able to occupy the Vo-Tech building, the next thing that we need to do is make that building suitable for us - courtroom namely," Nelson said. "There are some rules about having a courthouse. You have to have an elevated podium to put the presiding judge there, then you have to have a seat to the left and right and some sort of barrier between that person and who is being adjudicated. Then, there are some other things that we are going to put in place and that is security, so the judges can be able to enter that building from a point where the general public or a defendant would not enter the building. We are really hoping that we can come in three places; one for the general public, one for the court officials and then one for the defendants."

Nelson hopes to have a better idea how the county will proceed by the end of this week.

"I don't think there will be any work done until November, but just moving everything is going to be a pretty big job," Nelson said.