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Total transformation
Gerald Sinclair of Pope Construction is seen through protective glass as he installs the two-way communication system in the lobby of the Natrona County clerk of district court in the new Townsend Justice Center at the end of September. (Star-Tribune file photo)

A mandate from the state, talk, a defeat at the polls, talk, another defeat at the polls, more talk, an abandoned hotel, even more talk, creative financing with state money, a $10 million mark-up in costs, construction, and Natrona County finally finished the Townsend Justice Center in 2009.

After 70 years in the courthouse designed for one judge, thousands of boxes were moved by county and contract crews across North Center Street in September after the acquisition, internal demolition, design and construction that gave new life to a historic landmark.

State law requires counties to provide one 12-juror courtroom for each state district judge and staff.

The county provided that space with its 1939 courthouse, and later converted an office into a claustrophobic six-juror courtroom.

But staff overcrowding, document growth, and concerns over nonexistent security escalated after Gov. Dave Freudenthal named Casper attorney Scott Skavdahl as the county's third district judge in 2003.

Later that year, voters turned down a proposed temporary 1-cent capital facilities tax to pay for a planned $16 million courthouse.

In 2004, voters turned down a temporary quarter-cent sales tax, which prompted talk of the Legislature possibly reassigning Skavdahl to Gillette because Campbell County also had that need, as well as preparations for a third courtroom.

Meanwhile, costs rose rapidly during the area's construction boom in the middle of the decade.

After negotiations by Natrona County commissioners in 2006, the State Loan and Investment Board allocated $12.5 million to the county as part of a state effort to help counties affected by the energy boom. The county applied about $1.3 million of that amount for road improvements in the Mountain View subdivision and set aside the rest for the courthouse expansion. The county also had some money set aside in savings.

In January 2007, the county bought the former Townsend Hotel for $1.3 million from a group whose investors included Mick McMurry, Randy Hall, Jerry Amundsen, Steve Sasser, Jim Jones and Bob Ide.

In December 2007, the commission authorized the construction of the courthouse, which was scheduled for completion by the end of 2009.

Throughout construction in 2008 and 2009, work crews ran into unforeseen hassles, such as finding lots of old car parts and an occasional horseshoe, and needing to jackhammer through foundations of buildings long turned to dust.

The county had to hire a firm to help coordinate the move of the district court offices and the clerk of county court from the old courthouse, and the Natrona County Circuit Court and its clerk's offices from the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice.

Commissioners also agreed to keep the "Hotel Townsend" ghost sign on the building's east side as a reminder of its past glory as a place to socialize and do business.

The building includes a "flex courtroom" if court scheduling requires a fourth judge and jury; and the latest technology for security, jurors, courtroom spectators, and judges.

Reach Tom Morton at (307) 266-0592, or at tom.morton@trib.com.

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