Baraga Courthouse renovation plan progresses

L’ANSE – The Baraga County Board of Commissioners signed a letter of intent Monday with Honeywell Automation and Control Solutions, a consulting firm that says it will find ways to renovate the county’s outdated courthouse without the project costing anything in the long term.

The county plans to sell a bond, likely a 15-year note, to finance the renovations and expects increased energy efficiency to create enough savings to pay off the debt.

The total project cost will likely run in the $1 million to $1.5-million range, county clerk Wendy Goodreau said in an earlier interview. It will include structural renovations, insulation, heating and cooling control system replacements and a new heating and cooling system that could include a thermal exchange component.

If the project falls through though, the letter of intent commits the county to paying up to $35,000 to cover Honeywell’s labor investment.

Despite that risk, council members cited Honeywell’s track record working with other cities in the region, including Houghton and Munising.

“I’ve made some calls to other communities that have done this, and I haven’t had any bad remarks,” said councilman William Menge.

Honeywell, which already performed an energy efficiency study to determine the viability of the pays-for-itself strategy, now takes control of the project. Honeywell engineer Drew Causey will work up two potential designs, and solicit bids for each.

The initially more expensive design will include demolition of the current courthouse annex and installation of a geothermal heat exchange system to reduce the necessity for heating fuel. The other will replace the current boiler in the annex – which also heats the courthouse – with a more modern natural gas unit.

Honeywell determined that the current decades-old boiler is extremely inefficient. It’s also the only reason for maintaining the annex, which in recent years has been both deemed by the state as unfit for use as a jail, and later abandoned by the county as office space, according to county prosecutor Joseph O’Leary.

O’Leary’s office was moved from the annex to the courthouse – which had its own problems – at that time.

“We had an engineering report that said the courthouse ceiling was in imminent danger of collapsing,” O’Leary said. “We had to get everything out of the attic.”

Since then, county voters rejected a plan to move courthouse operations to the former Baraga County Memorial Hospital building. The courthouse continues to deteriorate, O’Leary said, and finding some sort of solution is now or never.

“It’s a 19th century building and this is the 21st century,” he said.

Honeywell representative Dick Williams said physical work on the project would likely begin in the spring, though any drilling for a potential geothermal system would have to wait until summer, when the ground was fully thawed.

From groundbreaking, he added, the project would likely be completed within a year.