GRAND FORKS – Grand Forks County is planning major repairs to its historic courthouse. The courthouse’s dome – constructed in 1913 – has been plagued by water damage, which has resulted in cracks forming in the dome’s walls, compromising its structural integrity. The project will be funded with a $5 million loan from the Bank of North Dakota. The loan carries a 2% interest rate.

County Administrator Tom Ford said the architectural firm hired for the repairs – Minneapolis-based Miller Dunwiddie – will hold a planning session next week before meeting with the project’s construction manager at risk (CMAR) – Construction Engineers – to begin the process of securing bids for contractors.

“The goal is to design and implement temporary solutions to the leaking, so that (in the) spring when the snow melts, we won’t have leaking coming through creating hazards in the courtrooms and hallways,” he said. The real work, he said, will begin in spring 2024.

Bill Gerszewski, facilities manager for the county, said the dome has not been refurbished since 1981, when windows and scaffolding were repaired. But now, it’s leaking — with water from the roof trickling down to the third floor where court is held. “It’s been a problem for 40 years,” he said.

Gerszewski said the county has utilized temporary solutions — such as placing buckets, tarps and small pools in the dome to collect leaking water — but those efforts do not address the larger issue of structural integrity. “The kiddie pools and plastic tarps – those have to go away,” he said. “They’re not an effective solution, and I don’t know why the county relied on them as long as they did.

“I’ve been here with the county for about four years now,” Gerszewski added. “This is a problem where I came in and said ‘we need to do something about this, guys.’ I finally got the ball rolling during COVID, and got projects approved so we can get architects and engineers on our team to give us recommendations. We wanted to know what it’s going to take to get this structurally sound and weather-tight again, and they finally gave us an answer. If the county wants to preserve this building as a historically recorded building for the next hundred years, this has to be done.”

Gerszewski also said repairs will be labor intensive, including replacing a rusted steel beam that supports the dome’s structural integrity, which is a major factor behind the project’s high cost. He also said refurbishing the dome’s copper roof – which is experiencing loosening of its soldering and joints – will be more difficult due to a lack of contractors in the region who specialize in copper.

Gerszewski has full confidence in Construction Engineers and Miller Dunwiddie to execute the project, but minimizing the impact of construction on court proceedings will be a greater challenge.

“The largest challenge we’re going to have with a period of probably two years of restorative work going on isn’t the work itself. It’s going to be staying operational without interfering with the roughly 300 court cases a month we receive,” he said. “Some are very quiet and inconspicuous, but we also have higher profile cases like murder trials. Court is impacting someone’s life. If there’s noise and construction going on in the building that interferes with that, that’s a problem.”

Gerszewski said some construction impacts can be mitigated through scheduling work on evenings and weekends, as well as delaying work during major court proceedings.

In addition to the repairs on the dome, the county is planning to add $195,000 worth of security upgrades. These include creating a fully secured entrance, a restricted exit-only door, mass notification systems in the event of an emergency and purchasing an X-ray machine to screen visitors’ bags more expeditiously.