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County workers complete move to new building; judges settle in

Circuit Judge Raymond Gross was all set Monday afternoon to convene the first official hearing in the new Criminal Justice Center in his courtroom. But workers were still putting the finishing touches on it, so he convened the routine hearing in his new chambers instead.

"We're ready to rock 'n' roll," Gross said cheerfully.

Actually, the new 342,000-square-foot courts building is not scheduled to open for business until next Monday, when two murder cases and a host of lesser crimes are slated for trial.

There will be a grand opening ceremony Friday _ more than two years after construction began, and nine months after the projected completion date.

County workers spent the weekend moving judges and clerks into the $53.6-million building, which was financed with sales tax proceeds. Facility Manager William Culp, who has worked for the county for 20 years, said he could not recall a move of such magnitude and complexity.

Volunteers from the clerk's office worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, moving files and equipment to their new location, Clerk of Court Karleen De Blaker said.

The county hired a moving company, but county employees wound up doing much of the work themselves. At one point Saturday, the county threatened to fire the moving company, Facilities Management Director Bruce St. Denis said.

"They were actually hampering us," he said. "That's been corrected."

By the end of the day, St. Denis said the move was a full day ahead of schedule.

Court Administrator Bill Lockhart said the new building will be open Monday, but added, "That's not to say we don't still have little things to do _ we've probably got a thousand little things."

Court employees wandered around the new building's 520-foot-long corridors Monday, getting their bearings and spotting some of those 1,000 things: a cheap clock mounted in the expensive lobby, a visitors' map that reverses the building's layout, automatic toilets that don't yet flush.

All through the marble halls are patches of paper taped up, covering a clay compound designed to draw stains out of the marble, Lockhart said. The stains come from the wet cardboard the marble blocks were stacked on during construction, he said.

There was plenty to marvel at in the new building too. Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer delighted in learning which buttons on the bench control which devices in the new high-technology courtrooms. One device even broadcasts static at the jury box so jurors can't eavesdrop on the lawyers during a bench conference.

But the main feature people praised in the new building was its grandeur _ a sharp contrast to the functionality of the old courts complex, which some wags dubbed "The Factory of Justice."

"It looks and feels like a courthouse," said Chief Assistant Public Defender David Parry. "Now we can walk around and feel like lawyers."

"The dignity's back," Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery said.