Courthouse to fully reopen Feb. 1 after 2017 pipe break

The view from the bench in the renovated Courtroom A of the Steele County Courthouse, which court officials say will be ready for business again starting Feb. 1. (William Morris)

By: William Morris
January 20, 2018

It only took 387 days, but the remodeled Steele County Courthouse at last is almost fully ready for business.

The courthouse closed Jan. 10, 2017, after a broken water pipe caused widespread damage on all three floors. The county moved the majority of court operations next door to the Owatonna Fire Hall, with a lease initially running through June. Over time, though, the scope of work grew from simply repairing the damage to making long-desired updates and remodels at the historic building, which was built in 1891 and expanded in the 1970s.

Portions of the restored building have been in use since September, but other functions remained at the Fire Hall or at other buildings around the city. That’s finally going to end, as Court Administrator Robin Hoesley announced via email Friday that the court will be fully reopened starting Feb. 1.

“We will no longer have hearings at the Fire Hall, [County] Administration Building, and Detention Center after that,” she wrote.

Walking through the remodeled courthouse, Hoesley can point to a number of improvements that will make life easier both for employees and residents seeking court services, most notably a third court room, and associated chambers for a third judge and staff.

“It’s obviously not a courtroom we’ll be using for jury trials, there’s no jury box, but it will be more than suitable for some of the civil, family stuff,” she said. “Child support magistrate will do their sessions in here.”

That courtroom, as well as several new conference/training/jury rooms and the law library, occupy the space formerly used by the court administration staff. Court administration has moved downstairs, to the space formerly occupied by probation services, which now has its own office off-site.

Of the two original courtrooms, one has been in service since September, while the second is wrapping up a complete redesign, moving the judge’s bench from one wall to the opposite corner and moving the party seats, witness box and jury seating accordingly. The remodel allows for more public seating and better security, Hoesley said.

“The main thing is the sightlines the judge has are going to be so much better, because they can see the full courtroom, they can see the entrance, and the judge is going to feel a lot more secure,” she said.

Even the parts of the building that retain their previous functions are outfitted with new carpet, paint, bathrooms, LED lighting, improved sound systems and other features.

On Law Day, May 1, court administration is planning a formal rededication and celebration. But until then, everyone is just happy to have their original space back, Hoesley said. That includes the fire department and others around town whose offices have served double duty during the courthouse project, and in her email to local government leaders, Hoesley gave full credit for all the assistance the court staff received.

“Once again, we want to thank the many public officials and staff at city, county and state levels who rallied to the cause of justice after the pipe burst and everyone involved in the renovation project to make the Courthouse more secure and functional for many years to come,” she wrote.

William Morris got his start in the newspaper trade as a recurring editorial intern in Wisconsin and has been writing about business, government and crime at the Owatonna People’s Press since 2015. He now splits his time working with the newspaper and as Associate Editor for Forge.

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