Three years after the first announcement, work is getting underway on renovating the federal courthouse in downtown Pensacola.
Thirty-one million dollars will be spent to clean up mold and water damage, along with other health and safety issues, that first cropped up just after the facility opened in 1997. Funding has been the major obstacle, says U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers, since her first call for action in 2015.
“This was not a new appropriation of money, but yet there was a re-programming of approximately $31 million out of the federal building fund,” said Rodgers. “And that required congressional approval – both houses – and that took some time.”
Personnel from a number of federal agencies, the courts, the Marshal’s Service, and others, had to be moved elsewhere. Many of them wound up in the Winston Arnow Building across the street, and the entire judicial process has been slowed considerably.
“It has been difficult in terms of being able to move cases and resolve cases,” Rodgers said. “We lost five courtrooms, five judicial chambers, and our clerk’s office was reduced in size by 75 or 80 percent.”
Keeping the money, and thus the project, in limbo was the fact that the courthouse was owned not by Uncle Sam, but by Philadelphia-based Keating Corporation, which continued to collect rent on the vacant facility.
The lease between GSA and Keating drew fire from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who toured the empty courthouse in July of 2016,and whose local staff was among the more than 100 employees forced out.
“Every month, this empty building and its owners are receiving a check from you, the federal taxpayer, in exchange for us having to get nothing out of this building,” said Rubio. “It’s the contract that the [General Services Administration] signed; truth be told, the GSA waited far too long to jump on this. But I imagine their feel of was, ‘we don’t want to go to Congress and ask for more money, on a building we don’t even own.’”
A GSA spokeswoman declined requests for an interview for this story.
Keating gave the courthouse deed to the City of Pensacola, which in turn transferred ownership to the General Services Administration. From there, Judge Casey Rodgers says the project began moving forward.
“Since then, we have been working on the design for the project and that’s taken a considerable amount of time,” Rodgers said. “But, I’m pleased to say we are extremely satisfied and happy with the design.”
Jacksonville-based TTV Architects came up with the blueprint for the renovation, after doing the water intrusion study in early 2015. Mississippi-based Yates and Sons Construction is working off a long wish list – beginning with replacement of the entire exterior façade.
“It will be improved for water intrusion, but also improved for bomb-blast protection,” said Rodgers. “The entire roof is being replaced; all of the interior that has water damage or mold will be repaired. And there have been substantial improvements to the building’s [heating and air conditioning] and mechanical systems to improve humidity control.”
Completion is scheduled for September of next year, with some timelines to be met along the way.
“The interior demolition will begin in April; we expect the new roof to be complete in June,” said Rodgers. “The exterior demolition of all of the façade to be completed by August, and then the new façade to be completed in May of 2019.”
Rodgers says she’s being told the work is expected to be on time and on budget.