BACK IN OPERATION
After months of being shut down, the Steele County Courthouse in Owatonna is operational once again. Well, sort of.
On Monday, the courthouse opened a second floor courtroom to accommodate the high-profile murder trial of Cyrus Trevino. The trial began with jury selection Monday morning with 80 potential jurors expected to appear. Other areas of the top floor also reopened Monday.
“It’s very exciting, I will admit,” said Robin Hoesley, court administrator. “We’re happy to be partially moving back in the courthouse. This is a big step forward,” she said. Her office had been displaced to other buildings after a pipe burst in the courthouse in January, flooding the entire historic facility.
The county received a certificate of occupancy from building inspectors last Thursday.
Lynn Holthus, the county’s building and grounds director, has been supervising the renovation project since the courthouse was shut down. “It’s a big process to do this. It’s not something that happens overnight,” he said, noting the state was involved throughout the project. Most of the court personnel are state employees.
Holthus describes the last nine months as being an incredible experience that brought together many different departments. “It seems during a tragedy, everyone pulls together and works well together,” he said.
Though the pipe burst became a major inconvenience, Holthus has found a silver lining to it all. “This will give us 20-30 years without building a new justice center,” he said. “It will save us $20-50 million for a new center. In the long run it will save taxpayers money,” he added.
The costs associated with the clean up and renovation are still be tallied, but Holthus noted that most of the damage will be covered by insurance. He estimates the county will have as much as $500,000 of its own funds into the project.
The last major renovation at the courthouse took place in 1998, according to Holthus. However, some of the ceilings haven’t been exposed since the 1950s.
During the most recent renovation, insulation was added to the attic. “Everything we have done should save on efficiency,” Holthus said.
As he looked at the newly renovated courtroom on the second floor, Holthus said, “We really got the place cleaned up and spruced up.” He paused for a moment and reflected on how much harder the job would have been if there had been people working in the building.
Hoesley described the efforts to get the courtroom operational for the murder trial as “grueling” over the past few weeks.
Even though one courtroom is back up and running, the rest of the courthouse will remain closed possibly for several more months.
The situation with the courts being displaced has been less than ideal since January. Hoesley said it has been a challenging experience for her staff to coordinate the logistics of court at three different locations in Owatonna. Most of the court operations had been moved across the street to the Owatonna Fire Station and across town to the county administration building where jury trials took place in the board room.
She said having the fire station across the street was a huge advantage for court personnel.
“We have done our best to let everyone know where to go,” Hoesley said. “We appreciate everyone’s flexibility and patience,” she added.
Over the next few months, a third courtroom will be constructed in what had been known as Hearing Room C in the courthouse. “It wasn’t a functional secure courtroom,” Hoesley said. “A better courtroom is being constructed.”
The third courtroom should be finished by February.
There are currently only two judges assigned to Steele County, but a third judge often comes in from another area of the district to handle the heavy caseload, according to Hoesley. “There is a very intentional decision to have three courtrooms as we have three judges quite often,” she noted.
The county’s probation department will not be moving back into the courthouse as it has found other space in the downtown area.