The downtown jail’s seven-year vacancy could come to an end as McLennan County leaders evaluate how to expand courtroom space and explore options for underused county property, including the Grand Karem Shrine building at Washington Avenue and Seventh Street.

Commissioners agreed to partner with The Wallace Group for a $102,669 study to determine the best use of vacant building space, specifically focusing on the courthouse annex, the downtown jail and the maintenance and purchasing building. County leaders say the criminal justice system has outgrown the courthouse’s design and function.

The Wallace Group will offer options to commissioners, then present a cost estimate by May if they want to proceed.

The state district felony courts would likely be the first ones to relocate, County Judge Scott Felton said.

The Wallace Group is bringing in experts in building for the judicial system to help evaluate space needs, Felton said. Until the study is done, all ideas are up in the air, he said.

The ground floor of the downtown jail, which connects to the courthouse, is used to hold defendants before and after they appear in court. Otherwise, the jail has not been used to house inmates since 2010, despite a $1.1 million renovation shortly after it closed.

Commissioner Kelly Snell, who voted against closing the jail and some of the subsequent repairs, said it might be better to finish work that would allow the jail to reopen, instead of converting it to courtroom space.

The pros and cons will be clearer once the study is complete, Snell said.

But at first glance, the building that fronts on Columbus Avenue appears to at least be structurally sound.

“It’s built like a jail,” Felton said. “It’s got a tremendous amount of concrete in it and steel.”

Grand Karem Shrine

Commissioners are also considering selling off the Grand Karem Shrine building. The county staff who operate out of the large and historical structure would likely relocate somewhere in the group of county buildings surrounding the courthouse, which officials call the “main campus.”

The city and county have considered renovating the 50,000-square-foot Shrine building to maximize its potential for municipal and courtroom uses, but a study by the two entities found that the project would cost about $12.5 million.

Its location in the heart of downtown Waco and its grandeur have developers regularly calling county leaders to inquire about buying the structure.

“We get calls on it all the time: people that would actually not list it but do something with it,” Felton said. “It’s a pretty hot market right now, and I’m assuming most people think there’s a window of opportunity to develop and the window is open. Economic cycles open and close these windows. We need to look now to look as quick as we can to see if that’s something we can do.”

The county only uses about 30 percent of the space for its family court and for health and human services offices, Felton said. If health and human services moves, it will require a space with parking for clients, he said.

The Wallace Group will survey elected officials, judges, department heads, clerical staff and others as it observes and catalogs existing support spaces as part of the study.

“This will be a bit unique in that I see this becoming a planning tool, not just for designers to use, but for this court to use in making projections in doing future planning with respect to the county,” Wallace Group project manager Bruce Thacker said.

The engineering and architecture firm will also determine any structural issues that would limit potential uses, including X-raying concrete structures where necessary.

The study will look at the county garage at Seventh Street and Washington Avenue, which may need to be relocated, Felton said. Space is cramped as county employees maintain vehicles, perform light mechanic work and retrofit patrol cars there, he said.

“It’s nice that it’s handy, but it doesn’t need to be handy,” Felton said.

The move would consist of finding more than just a new building.

A 5,882-gallon underground fuel tank would cost about $100,000 to pull out, but it will eventually need to be replaced anyway as it ages, Felton said.

“We’ll consider above-ground storage in the future and have it in a place that’s not publicly accessible,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t want to put an above-ground fuel tank downtown. We have to think about security and those things.

“I think we need to be thinking smart. Any time we can shrink our footprint, we should do that.”

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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