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story.lead_photo.caption West side of the Benton County Courthouse May 25, 2016. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County organizations supporting a failed courthouse proposal want more information before backing a new plan.

Leaders do like that the latest plan keeps the court buildings downtown, they said.

Past support

Supporters of the downtown court option that was rejected by voters in March include:

• Bentonville

• Rogers

• Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce

• Downtown Bentonville Inc.

• Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce

• Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce

• Benton County Farm Bureau

• Benton County Bar Association

Source: Benton County Judge Barry Moehring

How to pay for it

Two downtown buildings now used for court — the courthouse annex and a facility on Main Street — would be sold under the current plan. The sale could net about $2 million, and the county could use $6 million from reserve. The Walton Family Foundation committed to donate $2 million if the courthouse is built downtown. The remaining money could be financed in short-term debt. The county has a little more than $16 million in reserve.

Source: Benton County

The Quorum Court's Finance Committee at a special meeting July 25 gave County Judge Barry Moehring the OK to pursue basic design plans for a "downtown alternative," as it's called in county documents. The committee is expected to discuss an appropriation request to start the design process when it meets at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Residents voted down a one-eighth percent sales tax increase March 12 to pay to build an 87,000-square-foot, $30 million courthouse on Northeast Second Street. The tax would have been for 54 months.

The new plan would use the three courtrooms in the 28,080-square-foot Benton County Courthouse. The former jail area behind the courthouse would be demolished and replaced by a building with four courtrooms. The plan would cost less than $15 million, Moehring said.

Drawings show a detention area and Circuit Clerk's Office on the first floor and two 1,700-square-foot courtrooms each on two other floors. The proposal would add 35,000 to 40,000 square feet for courts, Moehring told the committee.

The county garnered support from three chambers of commerce in the county, the county bar association and Bentonville and Rogers, among others, for the failed court proposal. Backing to build downtown remains intact, but some in the organizations have a few tweaks in mind.

Wayne Mays, CEO/president of the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce, said downtown parking is his chief concern with any new proposal, especially for residents who have to come from the west side of the county.

Moehring's plan shows the county could add 80 parking spaces on land where the failed court building would have been built. There are no plans for a parking deck at this point, he said. A parking deck on Northeast B Street was part of the failed measure.

The county parking lot separating the courthouse from the County Administration Building also will be reconfigured, Moehring said.

The proposed lot would be for county business during work days, but would be open to the public for events such as the farmers' market and First Friday events, he said.

Mays said his chamber still favors downtown, adding the latest court proposal could be discussed when the chamber board meets in September.

"We are convinced that something needs to be done, and it has to be done as soon as possible," Mays said.

Jenna Fogleman, president of the 175-member Benton County Bar Association, said design needs to be taken into consideration in the new plan. Some courtrooms need to be bigger, she said, adding the association will consider a vote for the downtown alternative at a later date.

Raymond Burns, CEO and president of the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, said any plan must address public safety and provide a good court system supporting the public. He said a downtown location still makes sense, but he wants to hear more details on the new plan.

Chamber officials can't endorse a plan they haven't seen, said Graham Cobb, CEO and president of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce. Having the courts downtown is good for the whole city, he added.

"Judge Moehring and the Quorum Court are going in the right direction to find the most prudent solution," he said.

The county would have a more detailed plan to show in the fall, Moehring said.

"Right now, it's too conceptual," he said. "There's not enough meat on the bone."

Moehring's plan already has one backer: Bentonville.

Mayor Stephanie Orman said the city sees the proposed plan as a viable option. She said it's a good use of tax dollars without having to go back to the voters, and the courthouse contributes to downtown's vitality.

"With Bentonville as the county seat, we want to see the courthouse remain on the square," she said. "This 15- to 20-year alternative plan does not increase taxes and repurposes existing structures, and that's a win for the taxpayer and the city."

NW News on 08/05/2019

Print Headline: Downtown location for courts still has support

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