Architect Presents New Jail Options to Flathead County Commission

Four different variations could cost between $53 million and $73 million

By Justin Franz
A guard checks rooms at the Flathead County Detention Center. Beacon file photo

Flathead County commissioners and the public got their first look at what a new county jail could look like during a public meeting on April 24.

Russell Moorhead, of LCA Architects from Boise, Idaho, presented the commission with four different variations of a new county jail. Two proposals would build a new 260-bed jail adjacent to the current facility in Kalispell. A third option would build a jail and sheriff’s office facility at a new site. And a fourth option would leave the sheriff’s office at its current location and build a jail at a new site.

The architect was hired to help the commission decide where exactly it should build a new jail.

Flathead County has been grappling with an overcrowded jail for a number of years. The current facility in Kalispell was built in 1984 to hold about 60 people and has had to be expanded numerous times due to crowding. After a recent renovation, it can now hold 154 inmates, but Sheriff Chuck Curry said soon that will not be enough.

The first two options presented to the commission called for the construction of a single-story jail in different configurations next to the current justice center. Both options call for the demolition of the Courthouse West building, which houses the county treasurer, superintendent of schools and the department of motor vehicles, and the closure of 10th Street West between U.S. Highway 93 and First Avenue West. A 240-car, multi-story garage would be constructed next to the new jail to handle additional parking.

The jail would have separate bed areas for male and female inmates, program areas, a medical area, a kitchen, an intake and outtake area and indoor and outdoor recreational areas. The jail would also feature a control room elevated above the main inmate area that would allow the entire jail to be seen from one location.

Although the current jail has multiple stories, newer jails are usually built to one story to save on the number of guards needed.

Regardless of how the jail is configured, LCA Architects estimates it would cost about $73 million if construction were to begin in 2020 (the commission has not set a timeline for breaking ground). The jail cost includes $7.2 million for the construction of the parking garage; $4.5 million to construct a new building to house the county treasurer, superintendent of schools and the department of motor vehicles; and $7.3 million to turn the current jail into additional courtroom and office space for the Flathead County District Court.

Moorhead of LCA Architects said building next to the current jail would cost more because of the confines of the property. It would also limit the ability for the county to expand the jail in the future.

“The problem with this downtown site is that you’ll only get 260 beds,” Moorhead said. “In order to expand you would have to buy adjacent property, and so it’s really only a 20- or 30-year solution.”

The third concept presented to the county commission called for the same 260-bed facility and a new sheriff’s office to be built outside of the downtown area on an available 10-acre piece of land. Moorhead said one advantage to the off-site plan is that it would be easier to expand the jail in the future. Traditional surface parking would also be used instead of a multi-story parking garage. Constructing a jail at a new site would cost an estimated $66.8 million. The cost drops to $53 million if the sheriff’s office remains at its current location near downtown Kalispell.

Commissioner Phil Mitchell noted that while building a jail on a new site would be less expensive than building next to the current jail, there would be additional costs moving prisoners to and from District Court.

County Administrator Mike Pence said the proposed jail designs will help the commission decide how it should move forward. He said the commission would spend the next few weeks and months deciding if it should build next to the current jail or find a new piece of property. Until last year, buying a new piece of property appeared to be the preferred option, and the county entertained turning the old Evergreen Walmart into a jail or building on Weyerhaeuser land in Columbia Falls.

“These are hard decisions,” Mitchell said.

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