Looking to clear space for more court work in the courthouse, Sedgwick County will negotiate to buy another office building downtown to relocate county government.
The County Commission voted Wednesday to negotiate to buy the so-called Riverview Building, a mirrored glass office structure at 345 N. Riverview. That would cost an estimated $9.7 million to buy and renovate.
A move would help relieve a space crunch and create more seating area for the thousands of county residents who have to go to court for criminal and civil cases, or serve jury duty, officials said.
The county also hopes to make it less of a hassle for residents to handle tax matters at the treasurer's office, to file for homestead tax exemptions with the county clerk, or to attend commission meetings that are now held in a cramped chamber on the third floor of the courthouse.
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County officials also want to improve conditions for their workforce. Many courthouse offices are outdated and shabby, but improvements have been on hold while the commission considers what should go where.
The preliminary estimate to buy the Riverview Building is about $7.1 million. Renovating it into a new county government center would cost about $2.6 million.
Wednesday’s decision legally puts a cap on the building sale price, although the county can still try to negotiate down from there, said county Counselor Eric Yost.
The commission could also decide later not to buy the building, if commissioners decide they'd rather build something new, he said.
The building is owned by a company called Riverview Building LLC. Names associated with that company in secretary of state records include local business people Colby Sandlian, Anthony Utter, Leonard Marotte, Joseph Kramer and Donald, Imogene and Randy Dean.
The commission also considered buying a three-building downtown office complex, owned by Murfin Inc., that now houses the headquarters of the Cargill Corp.
Cargill is building a new headquarters at the former site of The Wichita Eagle offices and will soon leave the Murfin complex.
The main advantage to the Riverview Building is it's big enough to house all the county departments under the same roof. It also has better parking and costs less, officials said.
“One building will serve us better than to have a campus setting,” said commission Chairman David Unruh.
Commissioners emphasized that they aren't actually buying the Riverview Building yet, but opening a process toward what could be a final deal.
“The price is too high in both of these buildings,” said Commissioner David Dennis.
Unruh also said he thinks the price the county has been quoted for the Riverview Building is too high.
He said the county paid about $50 a square foot in 2014 when it bought a former federal office building that now houses city and county building and planning departments. The Riverview Building would cost about $80 a square foot, he said.
Steve Martens, a commercial real estate broker who's working with the county, said conditions have changed in recent years.
Developers have been buying up downtown office space and converting it to apartments. Prices have gone up because of supply and demand, he said.
Dennis said before he makes a decision, he wants a comparison of the 50-year overall cost of buying and renovating an older building, versus building new.
While an older building will cost less up front, a new building would require less spending for long-term maintenance, he said.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau said he would still like to consider building on to the existing courthouse. But he also acknowledged that he is probably the only commissioner interested in doing that.
The chief judge of the county courts and the district attorney both supported moving the county government out of the courthouse, saying they have more than maxed out the space they have available.
Judge James Fleetwood said he needs to be able to expand courtrooms to handle specialized courts, such as drug court and veterans' court, to meet evolving standards for the justice system.
He said he's also required to provide space for the Court of Appeals to meet in Wichita, but can't do that with the current space available.
District Attorney Marc Bennett said space is so tight in his office that he wants to move another prosecutor downtown but will probably have that lawyer use a conference room as an office until someone either retires or quits.
He said Sedgwick County now handles 3,400 cases that go to sentencing each year, compared with 1,700 for Johnson County, the state's second-busiest jurisdiction. And cases today are more complex with the advent of new technology, such as widespread surveillance camera and police body camera footage, that has to be watched and processed into evidence.
The current space “has served us well for a very long time, but we are simply out of space,” he said.
The county clerk, treasurer and register of deeds all support making a move to the Riverview Building, said County Clerk Kelly Arnold.