Renovations for the Crawford County Circuit Clerk’s Office at the former Crawford County detention center are underway.
Demolition on the old jail begun last week, and plans for a new design are being discussed, said Crawford County Circuit Clerk Sharon Blount-Baker.
Several drywall walls are being torn down to make room for office furniture and a new reception counter in the front office, Blount-Baker said. Then it’s just a matter of cleaning, painting, lighting and flooring, she said.
Most of the renovation improvements will be cosmetic, Blount-Baker said.
“We’ve got dreams, but we have realistic dreams,” Blount-Baker said. “We can’t do everything right now, but we can in time.”
Plans for Blount-Baker to move her office to the former jail have been under discussion since April 2014, a month before voters approved a sales tax to pay for the new detention center at 4235 Alma Highway.
Blount-Baker wants to bring some of the character of downtown Van Buren into her new office, she said.
One element, if approved, will be a reception area reminiscent of vintage bank foyers with a large front counter with arched windows, Blount-Baker said.
She also plans to restore vintage storage shelves in the current circuit clerk office to be used the new office, she said.
“I want people to be welcome and know that their records are here and that they’re safe - and that we’ve made good use of an old building,” Blount-Baker said.
One of the most important design elements in the new office is storage for the tremendous amount of records the circuit clerk is required to keep.
Approximately 1,300 record books will have to be moved into Blount’s office in the old county jail once renovations are complete.
Crawford County records currently are kept in one of four locations: a vault inside the clerk’s office, an old jail cell in the courthouse basement, a rental space near Crawford County Circuit Courtroom No. 2 and Central Records in Fort Smith.
Yearly costs to store records in the unit in Van Buren is $4,200, said Sheryl Couch with the Crawford County Judge’s Office. To store with Central Records, the cost is about $7,000 a year, Blount-Baker said.
While most records are now being e-filed to reduce the necessary amount of storage space, paper records that are more than 70 years old or are handwritten must be kept by the circuit clerk indefinitely, Blount-Baker said.
Record keeping is just one of the issues behind the need for the circuit clerk’s office to move - the need for space.
Right now, 12 circuit clerk employees including herself work in a space meant for about three people, Blount-Baker said.
Several large file cabinets, 14 employee work stations, the files vault and Blount-Baker’s personal office are crammed into the 1,700-square-feet office space in the county courthouse.
We just don’t have enough space to be efficient,” said Pam Neel, Crawford County chief deputy circuit clerk. “We can’t serve the public the way we want to because we’re so cramped.”
Desks for the 11 clerks on staff, excluding Blount-Baker, aren’t large enough for the equipment they’re required to use, she said.
“This isn’t a problem unique to Crawford County,” Blount-Baker said. “This is a statewide problem with clerks working in these old courthouses.”
Moving to the old jail will more than double the circuit clerk’s office to about 4,000 square feet.
Much of the space will be used for climate controlled storage for the record books - particularly real estate records, which Blount-Baker called “the most important things in our county.”
“They’re our history; nothing can exist without these records,” Blount-Baker said.
Unexpected costs for special storage and lighting for the record books may impact the overall renovation costs, but Blount-Baker said it’s worth it to maintain the books’ integrity.
Total renovation costs are expected to be about $100,000, Blount-Baker said.
Blount-Baker is nervous about moving the records, many of which date back to 1878 and have never left the courthouse, but said they will be safer in the old detention center.
“This whole building is considered a vault,” Blount-Baker said, referring to the old jail. “To know that our records will be here in one place, in a vault like they’re supposed to be, is just amazing.”
Blount-Baker and Neel became emotional when speaking about the move.
“It’s bittersweet for those who’ve worked here a long time,” Neel said. “We’re excited about the new, but we’re going to miss the old.”
Blount-Baker has received a great deal of community support for the endeavor, she said.
“The voters had a vision for this,” Blount-Baker said. “It’s encouraging to know when you’re making decisions to spend the amount of money you need to spend to make this work, that people are already OK with that.”
Blount-Baker hopes the renovation will be complete mid July, she said.