AUGUSTA — A supreme court justice who is helping direct the construction of the new court complex in the city said the $57 million complex will provide a financial boon for the downtown.
Joseph Jabar, associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, told a few dozen business leaders who gathered for Wednesday’s Business Insider breakfast at the Senator Inn that the complex, which will consolidate a number of courts in the city into one building behind the Kennebec County Courthouse on State Street, will provide significant upgrades in technology, security and convenience. Jabar told those at the breakfast organized by the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce that the project already draws about 150 construction workers to the downtown every day. While the new building near the intersection of State and Winthrop streets isn’t expected to generate new jobs, it will consolidate about 100 employees under one roof. Hundreds more will come to conduct business.
“I’m not an economist, but it’s an easy opinion to give that this project has had and will have an economic impact on the city of Augusta,” Jabar said.
Jabar, whose three-decade career includes a stint as district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties as well as superior court justice, briefly traced the state’s judicial history and events that led to building the new court complex in Kennebec County. Jabar recalled central Maine district courts that met in basements and one above a bank. There has been a push recently to modernize the judicial system and renovating and building new courthouses has been a big part of that effort, Jabar said.
“We’ve really come a long way in the last 40 years,” he said. “For too long we ignored the infrastructure of the third branch of government.”
Jabar said the new complex will transform the court system in Kennebec County, which now includes a courthouse that is nearly 200 years old and an Augusta District Court that is overcrowded and not secure.
All the courthouses, including family court, which is across the river, on Stone Street, will be consolidated when the complex is complete, Jabar said. The building will include seven courtrooms, including the large courtroom at Kennebec County Superior Court, which will be renovated. The courthouses will be outfitted with all the conveniences of modern technology, including a video conferencing system that will allow witnesses to testify from outside the courtroom. Jabar said the upgrades will allow the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to hear cases in Augusta.
“It’s only appropriate that the capital have the best judicial center in the state,” Jabar said. “It’s not going to be just a courthouse. It’s really going to be a judicial center.”
The city and county lobbied successfully to build the new complex behind the existing court building despite the engineering and design challenges of building on a steep hill. Jabar said the county was seeking to preserve the usefulness of the old courthouse, which will be attached to the new building by an enclosed elevated walkway, and the city wanted to preserve and enhance the economic vibrance of the downtown district, which is a block downhill from the courthouse. Granting the request meant pile-driving about 260 steel beams into bedrock to anchor the building and to protect the existing courthouse while excavating the site.
“They had to put in pilings so the old courthouse wouldn’t move and end up sliding down the hill,” Jabar said. “That’s quite an engineering test.”
The pile-driving proved a noisy process that briefly required Kennebec County Superior Court trials to move to Somerset County.
“When people complained about it, I said, â€˜It’s the sound of progress,'” Jabar recalled.
Jabar showed photos of crews pouring concrete — there are more than 5,400 cubic yards in the building — and a storm water collection system. One photo showed crews preparing to lift a prefabricated concrete wall section. The largest such piece weighed 76,000 pounds, Jabar said. The new building includes a glass staircase that will offer panoramic views of the city over the Kennebec River and granite-colored siding and a bell tower that is meant to help the new building blend with the old courthouse.
“Even though it’s modern, we didn’t want to conflict with the existing structure,” Jabar said.
Construction is set to conclude by the end of the year, with the first criminal and civil trials taking place by next March. Renovations to the existing courthouse are expected to be completed by 2015, Jabar said.
“I think it’s a project the city, the county and the State of Maine will be proud of,” he said.
Jabar smiled when he was asked if the court complex will fail to include anything he wanted.
“For $57 million,” Jabar said, “if you can’t get what you want for that amount of money, you’ve got a problem.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected] Twitter: @CraigCrosby4