City, county officials tout bill keeping superior court downtown

  • State Rep. Dianne Schuett, a Pembroke Democrat, speaks at a celebration of the future Merrimack County Superior Court to be built next to the current, outdated building downtown. NICK REID—Monitor staff

  • Gov. Maggie Hassan signs a copy of House Bill 1349, as Evelyn Seaworth, 8, looks on. NICK REID—Monitor staff

  • Representatives of the local, county and state governments celebrated the future Merrimack County Superior Court to be built next to the current, outdated building downtown. NICK REID—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/5/2016 12:13:35 AM

City, county and state officials gathered in the upper floor of the aging Merrimack County Superior Court on Thursday to celebrate its replacement, which, after a period of uncertainty, is set to be built just a few feet away from where they were standing.

“I can tell you there were a few moments that I thought this wasn’t going to happen, but you stayed there and made it happen,” Mayor Jim Bouley said in thanking the backers of an eleventh-hour effort to keep the court downtown. “This is much more than a building for us here in Concord.”

Whether the 163 N. Main St. court needed to be replaced wasn’t an issue – including among the state’s legislators, who earmarked more than $16 million for the project last year – but its location was. Lawmakers, especially those from outside the county, initially wanted the new court built across the river on Hazen Drive.

But for all the people who have worked to attract traffic to the new and improving downtown, that seemed counterintuitive. Steve Duprey, a Concord developer who worked on the proposal for the new court to remain downtown, said there are a number of reasons it’s a better plan: reduced cost and efficiency for the neighboring county attorney’s office are two.

He added a third: “It’s good for downtown Concord. I think we would have seen an out migration of a number of small law firms up to the Heights. I don’t think that’s good.”

That was the message that Bouley emphasized, too.

“We’ve made a tremendous investment in our downtown. This new building is just a continuation of making that investment to our city,” he said.

Duprey, who was awarded the contract to build the new court in May, said he hopes to begin construction as soon as possible next year. It’s an aggressive but possible estimate that the court operations could shift to the new building before the end of 2017, he said.

Before his firm can solidify terms with the county, he said, the state and county need to finish negotiations on their own contract. That’s taking longer than he expected, he said. Once the court is finished, the state will buy it from the county for $15.7 million, which is less costly than lawmakers originally planned.

The existing courthouse, which the county leases to the state for $400,000 a year, will be renovated into office buildings.

“It has a been a huge project. We reached across the aisle . . . to do what I think is good for the taxpayers in Concord, Merrimack County and the state of New Hampshire, so I thank you all,” said County Administrator Steve Marro.

The existing court is structurally solid but “probably the least compliant courthouse in the state” in terms of security, the Americans with Disabilities Act and proper separations between juries, judges, witnesses and the public, Duprey said.

Before ceremonially signing a copy of House Bill 1349, Gov. Maggie Hassan emphasized the need for a new court. She officially okayed the bill in May.

“The importance in this instance to have a new courthouse really can’t be overstated,” she said. “The previous courthouse was outdated and unsafe, and that really does have a negative impact on the people who are seeking justice.”

She called over 6-year-old Evelyn and 2-year-old Alex, the children of state Rep. Brian Seaworth, for an up-close look at the bill, then penned her signature.

“This is how we make a law,” the governor said.

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