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Itasca County justice center takes shape in Grand Rapids

The $75 million project will include 185 jail beds, three new courtrooms and new facilities for the county's attorney's office, plus a remodel of some existing space at the aging complex.

At Grand Rapids construction site.
A crane moves a 31,000-pound prefabricated wall panel at the Itasca County Government Center jail and courts addition Wednesday. The panel is 27 feet by 10 feet by 1 foot.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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GRAND RAPIDS — It isn't so much brick by brick as it is wall by wall.

For the past month, construction workers have been hoisting massive, precast concrete sheets into place at a future justice center addition to the existing Itasca County Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center in downtown Grand Rapids.

It takes only a matter of minutes for a crane to lift one of the prefabricated wall sections from a flatbed truck, with workers guiding it into place and beginning the process of fastening each piece, which can range from 10,000 to 50,000 pounds.

At Grand Rapids construction site.
Construction superintendent Mike Filippi, left, listens as Itasca County Administrator Brett Skyles talks about the justice center addition and existing complex remodel project.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Construction is moving so quickly that the entire outer shell of the building is expected to be substantially complete by the end of April.

"Progress is always exciting," County Administrator Brett Skyles said on a recent visit to the construction site. "It's always tough when somebody comes in and tells you you have to do something. Nobody woke up in the morning and said, 'Oh, let's build a new jail.' But I think everyone can see the need."

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At Grand Rapids construction site.
Three workers help move a prefabricated wall panel into position at the Itasca County Government Center jail and courts addition.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The $75 million project adds to an already sprawling government and judicial complex along U.S. highways 2 and 169 in the heart of the city. Included is a new jail, three new courtrooms and new facilities for the Itasca County Attorney's Office, plus a remodel of some existing space.

The justice center addition extends across Northeast First Avenue and will connect with the existing courthouse, which dates to 1950. The project was set in motion by an order from the Minnesota Department of Corrections to vacate the current jail, which was constructed in 1982 with an annex added in 1997.

At Grand Rapids construction site.
A construction worker attaches chains from crane hooks to a prefabricated wall panel at the Itasca County justice center addition.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Slated to open in September 2023, the new three-story facility will be 68,000 square feet on ground floor. It will offer 185 jail beds — up from the 107 in the current facility, which actually has a lower operating capacity due to certain limitations.

"The big issue is there's no space in there for programming or the way you have to classify inmates anymore," Skyles said. "So this new facility will address those concerns. We'll be able to supervise more inmates with the same level of staffing and increase safety for both the inmates and staff."

Moving away from the old bar-style jail design, the new complex will feature fully enclosed single cells that can hold any inmate regardless of their status, Skyles said. And it is expected to eliminate the need for the county to pay to transport and house dozens of inmates at other jails.

Itasca County justice center rendering.png
An architectural rendering shows plans for the justice center addition, left, to the existing Itasca County Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center. The building, housing a new jail, county attorney's office and three courtrooms, is expected to open in fall 2023.
Contributed / Itasca County

Voters to decide how to pay

The county board voted in May 2020 to build on to the existing site after a two-year process that also explored building on a green space near the Grand Rapids-Itasca County Airport. With the condition of the aging courthouse next door, the board also decided to go beyond the simple jail mandate by including new court facilities.

With critical businesses in the area idling and the local tax base shrinking because of the pandemic, the county must still forge ahead with a project that is expected to cost about $60 million.

"Our courtrooms are very old," Skyles said. "They're not (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. They don't meet safety code. Our judges were very instrumental in advocating for that to the county board. So we're going to finish off three new courtrooms and increase the security."

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At Grand Rapids construction site.
A welder secures a just-positioned prefabricated wall panel to an adjacent panel.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Once new construction is complete, crews will begin the process of remodeling approximately 23,000 square feet of space in the old complex.

Brett Skyles
Itasca County Administrator Brett Skyles
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

One courtroom will be renovated, giving the three-judge county a fourth courtroom for a potential addition to the bench. Other courtrooms may be used for juror assembly or meetings. Probation, currently housed in a small building across the street, also will move into the complex, and that structure may be sold by the county.

As for the old concrete and steel jail cells, Skyles said the county isn't likely to find an immediate use other than storage.

While construction continues, voters must still decide how to pay for the facility. The Minnesota Legislature gave the county approval for a ballot measure this November that would allow voters to choose a local-option sales tax in lieu of a property tax increase.

At Grand Rapids construction site.
A worker checks plans in a construction trailer.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The 1% sales tax would apply to all transactions in the county and expire once the $75 million is paid off, which Skyles said is projected to take 18-22 years. He said data from a decade ago showed that only 45% of sales in the county came from residents; the University of Minnesota is conducting an updated study as part of the effort to inform voters ahead of the election.

Without approval, Skyles said property owners would be in for an "almost automatic 10% increase" in their taxes.

Project transforms downtown

At Grand Rapids construction site.
People work on the jail and courts addition in Grand Rapids. Part of the current courthouse and law enforcement center is visible in the background.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

To make way for the justice center, the county had to purchase and demolish several adjoining structures, including Vanity Cleaners, Northland Flooring and the old Northprint building. It also paid $2.35 million for the Grand Rapids Fire Department station, leaving only City Hall on that block. A new fire hall has been erected about a mile south near Highway 169.

Demolition began last fall, followed by the replacement of soil that had been highly contaminated by businesses on the site previously.

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Mike Fillippi
Contegrity Group construction superintendent Mike Filippi
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"After that, we installed the foundations and completed that basically just before winter," said construction superintendent Mike Filippi, of Little Falls, Minnesota-based Contegrity Group, Inc. "That allowed us to order precasts and steel, just because of where everything's at right now (with supplies)."

Filippi, who is building his fourth jail, said some high winds and winter weather have had some minor impacts, but the project remains on schedule and budget.

Skyles, who walks to the construction site from his office a few times a week, was amazed by how quickly the project is taking shape with enormous concrete sections that seem to defy gravity. While exciting to watch, he said it's been an intensive and expensive process that the county isn't eager to repeat in the near future.

"This should last us at least 50 years," Skyles said. "That's the plan."

At Grand Rapids construction site.
The Itasca County justice center addition is rising adjacent to the existing courthouse and law enforcement center, background right.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
At Grand Rapids construction site.
The new Grand Rapids Fire Department station at 104 S.E. 11th St. The city had to move its fire department about a mile south to make way for the Itasca County jail and courts addition.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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