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Construction on unique public-private courthouse starts in Columbia

A rendering of Edgemoor-Star America Judicial Partners proposed new Howard County Circuit Courthouse. (Howard County)

A rendering of Edgemoor-Star America Judicial Partners proposed new Howard County Circuit Courthouse. (Howard County)

Construction started on the new Howard County Courthouse in Columbia on Monday in what is believed to be the first public facility on the East Coast to use a performance-based public-private partnership.

Howard County officials and executives from private-sector partners, including lead developer Edgemoor-Star America, gathered to celebrate the ceremonial start of work. The occasion was marked by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball taking control of an excavator to smash a segment of the old annex, the Thomas B. Dorsey Building at 9250 Bendix Road.

“Thoughtful deliberation went into every part of it and planning. Is it perfect? No, but we’re human,” said Lenore Gelfman, the retired administrative judge who guided the project prior to her mandated retirement last fall. “All eyes are on Howard County. It’s a huge project.”

The 238,000-square-foot facility with a four-story atrium and 682-space parking garage is slated to open on the Bendix Road site in July 2021. It will replace the 175-year-old courthouse in Ellicott City.

Edgemoor-Star America, under an agreement approved with the county last year, is financing the cost of construction and design. Once the building is complete the company is responsible for maintenance and operation of the facility for 30 years. At the end of the agreement the courthouse is expected to be turned back over to the county.

In exchange, Howard County will provide $75 million in general obligation debt and make a roughly $10 million annual service payment with inflation adjustments to the private development team.

Brian Dugan, CEO of Edgemoor-Star America, said what’s unique about this so-called P3 public-private partnership is it links county payments to building condition. For example, he said, if an elevator is offline for a certain amount of time the county can deduct an appropriate amount from payments to his firm.

The new courthouse will provide what county officials describe as badly needed upgrades to the courthouse in Ellicott City.

Howard County is one of Maryland’s fastest-growing jurisdictions. The county, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, grew by nearly 13% between April 2010 and July 2018, the highest growth by percent among Maryland’s major metropolitan jurisdictions.

That growth has resulted in a heavier work load for the judiciary, which has had to expand operations and now needs more space. Plans for the building under construction include a courtroom for a sixth judge, a larger jury assembly area and enough space to allow the state’s attorney to operate in a single office.

Physical limitations of the current courthouse, which dates back to the administration of President John Tyler, make certain technology upgrades difficult. One example, Gelfman said, is the courthouse’s granite walls preventing WiFi access.

Concerns about the courthouse extend beyond comfort and convenience. Howard County Sheriff Marcus Harris, whose deputies provide security to the building, portrayed it as a safety hazard.

“I can’t tell you how often I pray at night because the old courthouse is truly difficult to secure,” Harris said.

The future of the historic courthouse in Ellicott City remains uncertain. A recent country report recommending conveying the building and some other properties in flood-prone Ellicott City to a proposed community development corporation.

Last week a spokesman said Ball is considering all options proposed in the report.

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