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Great Falls approves $2.2M to convert Civic Center ballroom into courtrooms

Great Falls approves $2.2M to convert Civic Center ballroom into courtrooms
Great Falls city commissioners voted Tuesday to award $2.2 million in a contract to convert the Civic Center’s Missouri Room into two new municipal courtrooms. The project is broadly supported by city officials but criticized by preservationists who argue the renovation will forever compromise the historical integrity of the 1940s era ballroom.

For decades Great Falls’ Municipal Court has been confined to a sub-ground level courtroom and a small cluster of offices which once served as a men’s locker room for an adjacent ice rink. The court has flooded four times in the past 10 years, and there are persistent concerns about the presence of mold and asbestos.

What was once a ice rink locker room is now used by the Municipal Court as a document storage area.
What was once a ice rink locker room is now used by the Municipal Court as a document storage area.

However, a lack of space has been the greatest concern for the city’s municipal court. Great Falls Municipal Court is the third busiest in Montana, processing upwards of 10,000 citations, complaints, and defendants each year. At the beginning of the year the court added a second judge, Mark Dunn, to attend to the burgeoning caseload. With no additional space available, Dunn and his colleague on the bench, Judge Steven Bolstad, are currently forced to share a single chamber.

For several years the city has considered alternatives to expand space for its municipal court. These have included remodeling the Montana Children’s Museum building, which is a city owned property, expanding the Great Falls Police Department building to create a larger law and justice building, moving into the old Federal Courthouse above the downtown post office, and leasing space from some other privately-owned building. Each of these alternatives came with their own set of problems.

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The primary consideration has been money. The city received $19.5 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) to combat the public health and economic impact of the COVID pandemic. The city allocated $3.5 million of that one-time-only federal money to finding solutions to the problems at the municipal court. The allocation will also pay for upgrades to the Civic Center’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

Great Falls City Commissioners awarded a $2.2 million contract Tuesday to convert the Civic Center's Missouri Room into two new municipal court chambers.Great Falls City Commissioners awarded a $2.2 million contract Tuesday to convert the Civic Center's Missouri Room into two new municipal court chambers.

Great Falls City Commissioners awarded a $2.2 million contract Tuesday to convert the Civic Center’s Missouri Room into two new municipal court chambers.

Opposition to the proposal has been based upon the Missouri Room’s historical significance. Built within the Civic Center in 1939 as a banquet hall/ballroom, the Missouri Room was once one of the largest public gathering spaces in Great Falls. The room currently includes a high ceiling, numerous windows, and ornate details of the art deco style that was popular in the 1920s.

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The remodeling will fundamentally transform the space, adding additional walls, platforms, and hallways. The Missouri Room will no longer be a space managed by the Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts, which currently rents the space for events throughout the year, adding roughly $20,000 annually to the performing art center’s budget.

Construction will begin this summer to convert the Civic Center's Missouri Room into two new municipal courtrooms (blue) with office space and meeting rooms.Construction will begin this summer to convert the Civic Center's Missouri Room into two new municipal courtrooms (blue) with office space and meeting rooms.

Construction will begin this summer to convert the Civic Center’s Missouri Room into two new municipal courtrooms (blue) with office space and meeting rooms.

“This medium-size room is in high demand for public meeting and private events,” reads a statement from the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee. “Much effort was expended to create this excellent space. Lack of space has been an issue for city government for many years and departmental “musical chairs” has proven to not solve the problem. We urge commissioners to seriously consider alternatives to chopping up the Missouri Room.”

However, the immediate needs of the city’s justice system prompted city commissioners to decide in favor of the Missouri Room renovation. Bolstad, a longtime municipal judge, said the conversion will represent the best needs of Great Falls’ citizens in the decades ahead.

Great Falls Municipal Court Judge Steven Bolstad will be joined by a second municipal court judge in January, 2024Great Falls Municipal Court Judge Steven Bolstad will be joined by a second municipal court judge in January, 2024

Great Falls Municipal Court Judge Steven Bolstad will be joined by a second municipal court judge in January, 2024

“We attended an Historical Preservation Committee meeting and they referred to this room as the people’s space,” Bolstad commented. “My response to that is what better people’s space to have up there than the city court? We see every type of person in our community, and I can’t think of a better community space as that room.”

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“It’s still going to be the people’s space, Bolstad added. “As far as the beauty, they’re going to keep the sconces (ornamental brackets), they’re going to keep the ceiling and we’re trying to use the same light fixtures. We’re going to stay with the same decor as the rest of the civic center. The architect said he wants it to look as if it’s always been here.”

Work to transform the Missouri Room is expected to start this summer, with a completion date expected before the end of the year.

This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Great Falls OKs $2.2M to turn Missouri Room into municipal courtrooms

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