Lake County courthouse expansion plan moving forward
A planned multimillion-dollar expansion of Lake County's main courthouse could trigger an economic and employment boom in downtown Waukegan, proponents said Tuesday.
The proposal calls for the county to borrow up to $90 million to help fund the construction of new courtrooms, the renovation of existing courtrooms and other improvements.
A new nine-story tower on the south side of Washington Street near County Street, between the courthouse and the county jail, would be the centerpiece of the project.
The project ensures the courthouse and jail will stay in Waukegan for decades, and that means lawyers and other legal professionals keep offices in the immediate vicinity, Chief Judge Fred Foreman said after a review by the county board's law and judicial committee.
"This is an economic engine for this area," Foreman said.
The project also will require the hiring of countless construction workers, a fact that wasn't lost on the committee members.
"Think of the jobs -- lots of local jobs," Libertyville Republican Carol Calabresa said.
"I hope we get some of those jobs," added Waukegan Democrat Mary Ross Cunningham, whose district includes the courthouse. "I hope we don't get looked over."
The committee approved the plan without objection.
Seventeen new courtrooms are included in the proposal, with room for more, officials said.
Additionally, courtrooms and facilities in the county jail building would be remodeled, and a tunnel would be built beneath Washington Street for prisoner transportation between the buildings.
A 35,000-square-foot expansion of the county's juvenile justice center near Vernon Hills also is planned.
As new judges have taken the bench to meet an ever-growing court docket, the main court building has not expanded, forcing some judges to share space. Some non-court space in the building -- including the county board meeting rooms on the 10th floor -- occasionally is used for court activities.
Branch courthouses in Mundelein, Round Lake Beach and Park City have opened in recent years, too.
From time to time, county and law-enforcement officials have discussed building a new courthouse in either Libertyville or western Waukegan. But keeping the courthouse near the jail is fiscally imperative because of the prisoner-transportation costs that would be required if the criminal courtrooms moved, Deputy County Administrator Amy McEwan said.
"When you have criminal work, it has to be done here, because it's by the jail," she said.
A special committee of county, judicial and law-enforcement officials has been studying the space issue since 2008. It identified $200 million worth of potential facility improvements but pared the list down through operational-efficiency recommendations and other means, McEwan said.
The county board's finance committee will review the proposal at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Waukegan. The full board could vote on the plan Tuesday, Nov. 20.
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