Courthouses are generally solemn places where people in tough life situations go because they have to, not because they want to.
But on Thursday, the mood at the brand-new Waldo Judicial Center on Market Street in downtown Belfast was downright giddy, as a camera-toting Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and others toured the state-of-the-art facility, which officially opened for business the following day.
“This is about as exciting as it gets,” Saufley said as she admired the colorful art on the walls purchased through the state’s Percent for Art program and the large windows, which flooded most of the rooms in the building with sunlight. “With any luck, people will come in here with a little bit lighter spirit than they otherwise might.”
The judicial center, which consolidates Waldo County Superior Court and Belfast District Court, came into being after Gov. Paul LePage signed a law in 2016 to modernize and consolidate court facilities. The law authorized spending up to $95.6 million on projects in Oxford, Waldo and York counties, of which the Belfast project — which past news reports said would cost an estimated $17 million — is the first to be completed.
Opening day couldn’t come fast enough for the people who work at the court, who were all smiles on Thursday. For many years, court clerks have used shopping carts, a rolling filing cabinet and their own muscle to bring court files the two blocks between the two former courthouses in all kinds of weather, Clerk of Courts Brooke Otis said.
“We’re very excited to be in one place,” she said. “To not have to haul files from one place to the next and to have all of our clerks full time in the same office; bright lights and big spaces is a huge improvement.”
There was a lot of room to improve. Waldo County Superior Court, located a stone’s throw from the new facility, was built in the mid-19th century and doesn’t conform to Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. It was showing its age in other ways, too, with electrical and mechanical system failures, and wasn’t designed in a way that eases modern security concerns, according to the state.
The district court building was designed in 1930 and added onto in 1987, but it has accessibility problems of its own and does not provide separate and safe circulation paths for judicial staff, incarcerated defendants, jurors and the public, state officials have said.
The new 38,000-square-foot, two-story brick building more than solves the access, modernity and safety problems, said Ted Glessner, the state court administrator.
“Access to justice is something we talk about,” he said. “It is very, very difficult, and at times impossible, to do that with a building built in the 1840s.”
For those concerned that the former court houses will be left vacant, Waldo County Commissioner Betty Johnson had reassuring words. Those two buildings are owned by Waldo County, and the county commissioners are still figuring out plans for them, but they won’t be empty, she said.
The Waldo County District Attorney’s Office will remain in the Superior Court building, along with the Registry of Deeds. In the other building, it’s likely that the county offices will be expanded, the Registry of Probate will move upstairs to the former Belfast District Court space and some other space may be rented to outside groups.
“It’s exciting in a way, because we were really crowded,” she said.
In the new building, some of the safety features include a lobby that is set up to do entry screening and a sally port entrance, where people in custody arriving for court dates can be driven in and walked directly upstairs to the courtroom without encountering any members of the public or jurors.
“You have people under difficult life circumstances, and we want to make sure that people who come in feel safe,” Glessner said.
As well, the large courtroom downstairs should have enough space for the large numbers of people who can be present for arraignment day, large trials and jury selections. The seats are padded in all the courtrooms, a welcome change for anyone who has sat on the hard wooden pews of the old courthouse during a multiday trial.
All courtrooms are designed to incorporate modern technology, including remote video in case there is an expert witness from afar, and screens to display evidence so all can easily see it.
“This is just going to be so much better,” Glessner said. “We’re designing for what we need today, but also down the road.”
The judicial branch has been pushing to consolidate courts and replace aging courthouse buildings in counties across the state in an effort to run them more efficiently and cut long-term costs. In recent years, the state has modernized courts in Bangor, Augusta, Houlton, Dover-Foxcroft and Machias.
When Belfast’s turn came, it was not without controversy over location and design. At first, city officials had hoped the state would consider renovating and expanding the superior court building to keep it in use and to keep the courts downtown. They were even willing to relocate Market Street to make enough space for the courthouse.
However, in late 2016, the state signed two purchase-and-sale agreements for property bordered by Church, Market and Anderson streets, which had been home to Duval’s Garage and a private home. Crews demolished those buildings the following year, making a roughly 1-acre parcel in downtown Belfast.
“We spent a lot of time on location,” Glessner said.
The building’s design also generated some anxiety when an early conceptual drawing that showed a blocky, modernistic building was released to the public. But the final design for a stately brick building with tall white pillars looked more like other buildings in Belfast, particularly the Waldo County General Hospital and the Crosby School, and set residents’ minds at ease.
“You don’t want there to be any question that this is a courthouse,” Glessner said. “I think it fits right in. Some people are saying it looks like it’s always been there.”