Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson speaks to the Elkhart County commissioners Monday as he proposes selecting downtown Elkhart as the site for building a new consolidated county courthouse. Staff photo by Aimee Ambrose |
Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson speaks to the Elkhart County commissioners Monday as he proposes selecting downtown Elkhart as the site for building a new consolidated county courthouse. Staff photo by Aimee Ambrose |
GOSHEN — Elkhart city leaders pitched the sketch of a proposal for the city to serve as the home for a new county courthouse, one that could merge with plans for a new Elkhart public safety facility.

Mayor Rod Roberson addressed the Elkhart County commissioners during a meeting Monday to make a case for selecting downtown Elkhart as the site for the planned consolidated courts complex. The county has been scouting locations to build a large, modern structure that would bring the county’s seven courts, currently split between Goshen and Elkhart, together under one roof.

Roberson and other city officials sold their idea based on the project growing economic development opportunities, providing convenient access for people needing to use court services or appear for court dates, and the possibility of reducing construction costs.

“We believe that this is a game-changer for downtown Elkhart. And we don’t believe that we can do it without you,” Roberson said. “We can do some things here that can’t be done anywhere else with any of the other locations that you’ve looked at.”

Using mock-ups, Tory Irwin, Elkhart city engineer, and an architect with American Structurepoint, presented rough drafts of what such a facility could look like in downtown Elkhart. The company was asked to prepare a sample idea since it’s already working to design the city’s new public safety facility.

Irwin described the possibility of putting the courthouse on a 120,000-square-foot block, and building it up with multiple stories. The facility could have space for 170,000 square-feet of the courthouse combined with 104,000 square feet for the public safety facility, plus room for additional space.

The rendering displayed at the meeting appeared to indicate the proposed complex would be located one block south of the where the current courthouse in Elkhart stands along Second Street. Irwin suggested, in this hypothetical situation, that once the new courthouse is open, the current courthouse could be redeveloped into a parking structure with nearly 700 spots for public safety staff and visitors. There was also a suggestion the structure could house retail components as well.

The speakers and renderings were intentionally vague on locations for the courthouse proposal. Roberson indicated a specific location hasn’t been selected yet.

“That could be that block, but we may make it another one. We’re trying to see what’s feasible as we speak,” he said after the meeting.

Most cases are heard in Elkhart

Roberson argued to the commissioners he’s been told by local court system staff that two-thirds of county’s court filings are made in Elkhart, and about 60% of people using court services are doing so in Elkhart. He also suggested if the county combines its $80 million plans for the courthouse with the $40 million public safety facility plan, the move could save the county at least $17 million on the total costs.

The commissioners, earlier during their meeting, approved issuing $35 million in bonds as the first round of bonds for the project. The funds, according to the resolution they signed, would be used for expenses that include acquiring real estate, demolitions, site development and construction.

The move followed the County Council’s vote to issue the bonds Sept. 12. County leaders had been considering sites along C.R. 17 north of the U.S. 20 bypass near Elkhart and along Reliance Road near U.S. 33 in Goshen as possible locations for the new courthouse prior to Monday’s presentation.

Six people spoke after the presentation, including two Elkhart City Council members. Most speakers pushed for the downtown Elkhart plan.

Democrat Aaron Mishler, of the council’s 1st District, echoed beliefs the facility would be good for the city’s economy. He also expressed concerns that low-income residents who don’t have vehicles and rely on public transportation would have more trouble making court dates at a courthouse located near highways.

“I personally worry about transportation for folks moving the courts out of the downtown area,” Mishler said. “I don’t believe they should face the possibility of missing a court date due to a ride from a friend falling through.”

He and others urged the commissioners to wait on making a decision until the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce can have economic impact studies completed on the issue.

At the County Council meeting more than a week ago, Yoder said the council is expected to decide Nov. 14 which location is best suited for a new courts complex. During Monday’s meeting, he indicated county leaders are taking their time to plan appropriately.

“We are being what ‘expedient’ means to us. I think it’s fair to say we want to continue to make progress on this, but nobody’s in a super big hurry. This is a big project, and we want to make sure we do it right,” Yoder said.

He called Roberson’s pitch an “intriguing proposal,” saying the county hadn’t considered consolidating such operations with either Elkhart or Goshen previously.

The county already has a purchase agreement in place for the Reliance Road site. An agreement for the C.R. 17 site could also be signed soon.

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