ELYRIA – With the brand-new, $10.4 million Elyria Municipal Court nearing completion, Judge Lisa Locke Graves can hardly wait to shed the current courthouse`s checkered history.
After all, it`s not easy to maintain the proper judicial decorum when folks still refer to one of the courtrooms as a former lingerie department.
The new city courthouse at 601 Broad St., a project eight years in the making, is slated to open sometime in December, with an official grand opening celebration scheduled for early January.
The courthouse originally was pegged to open in September or October, but delays caused by uncooperative weather have impeded progress, construction crews and city officials said.
In any event, the new building is weeks away from completion, and nearly every arm of the criminal justice system – judges, attorneys, clerks, maybe even the defendants – seems to be aching to ditch the old digs, a former Sears store that was rehabbed more than 30 years ago to temporarily house the Elyria court system.
That “temporary” arrangement will finally end soon.
On a recent weekday morning, members of the Elyria Rotary Sunrise group were the first to officially tour the new courthouse.
It was 8 a.m. when Locke Graves and her courthouse counterpart, Judge John Musson, led the group through the building. Construction crews already were at work.
On the first floor, a crew was slathering a layer of clear glue across the concrete floor, a precursor to the installation of the foyer`s terrazzo flooring.
On the second floor, woodworkers were putting the finishing touches on the oak trim inside Musson`s courtroom.
In the basement, plastic-wrapped chairs were awaiting placement in the proper rooms.
This is where the tour started.
“We started paying for this eight years ago through a special improvement fund,” Musson said, explaining that the building`s cost will be covered by the fee tacked onto the fines of offenders. “No taxpayer will ever pay for this building if they don`t break the law.”
At the time of the tour, the basement of the building was largely vacant, save for a few items – chairs, shelves and little office doodads – that are being stored there until the official opening.
But Locke Graves said the basement is ripe for future expansion and has ample room for storage – a feature required by law. Toward the back of the basement, a pair of garage doors – the sally port – opens to the rear parking lot.
Locke Graves said this arrangement is one of the most reassuring features of the new building as it allows police to pull their cruisers directly into the building with the garage doors closing behind them, allowing them to drop off prisoners without fear of escape.
“There have been several escapes from the other place,” Locke Graves said, somewhat sheepishly. “People could walk right up to the prisoners when they were being dropped off.”
The new prisoner-delivery system will feature basement-level holding cells, as well as a full-time guard who will control all operations in that area.
In many ways, the new courthouse is like any modern justice center – fine oak woodwork, new carpeting, open foyers, spacious clerical areas.
But there are some features of the new building that are way cool, according to the Elyria Rotary members.
Case in point: The Kevlar-reinforced paneling embedded in the judge`s bench.
The Kevlar is worked inside the wood, providing a sitting judge with total protection – if they just remember to hit the deck should things get ugly.
Rotary Club member Janet Taylor pointed out that the light fixtures in the two second-floor court rooms look like the scales of justice.
“I like it – I didn`t even consider that,” Musson said.
Locke Graves added: “That was intentional by the architects.”
Prisoner holding cells are stashed in an enclosed area between the two court rooms, while other areas include a small hearing room for court magistrates who handle traffic violations and other petty offenses.
It`s a sure bet that the new building will be busy from the get-go. The Elyria Municipal Court system handles upward of 22,000 cases a year, Locke Graves said.
Another benefit of the new building? Everything that happens in the judges` chambers will be recorded by surveillance cameras in the back and in the front.
While the old building had a recording system, it wasn`t exactly on par with the new system
The old way meant rewinding the VCR tape anytime someone wanted to check something that happened during a proceeding.
But the new system is much faster – thanks to a digital system that, all told, ran about $152,000, said Paul Zielazienski, of Southshore Electric, the company that installed all the electronics and wiring in the new building.
“It`s pretty much a state-of-the-art system,” Zielazienski said, referring to a 9-foot-tall tower stacked in a far-off room alongside a tangle of wiring, cables, modems and electrical hook-ups.
The second floor also features a jury room, something that was never available at the old building, as well as rooms for victim`s advocates, prosecutors, attorneys, social workers and others.
The steps outside the building lead to the first floor, where windows look into the clerical area. A public records room sits nearby, where citizens will have complete access to court records.
In fact, there are few things lacking in the new 30,000-square-foot building.
There is one item, however, that Locke Graves and Musson are hoping is purchased before the building opens: An X-ray scanner to scan what is being brought into the courthouse by visitors.
Locke Graves said she`s thinking about asking Elyria City Council to help the court pay for the machine.
Elyria Councilman Garry Gibbs, R-3rd Ward, was among the Rotary club members touring the building on this day, but he wasn`t promising any cash when the purchase was brought up.
The new building will be called the John A. Howard Municipal Courthouse, named after the judge who was long known for his compassion, congeniality and fair-mindedness, Locke Graves said.
The old building – which once housed Elyria City Hall as well – likely will be turned into a storage area, city officials said.