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SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa - Signs of construction still litter the wintry exterior landscape, but inside the spacious new Dickinson County courthouse both occupants and visitors alike are lauding the beauty of the $14.9 million project, a stunning structure of glass, brick and stone.

This January, more than four long years since the referendum passed to clear the way for construction, the final county departments moved into the gleaming new courthouse at the junction of Iowa Highway 9 and Hill Avenue in Spirit Lake.

"This is an historic event," said Supervisor Paul Johnson of the final move. "This is the first time in more than 50 years that all county departments are housed under one roof."

Referendum, construction, plans, all unfolded in '03-'04

Relentless research, public meetings and architectural conferences had convinced the Dickinson County Supervisors that renovating the historic, but structurally failing, 1893 courthouse was not a feasible plan.

After three previous bond issues to construct a new courthouse had failed to pass, the Dickinson County Supervisors in 2003 undertook an aggressive campaign to win the electorate over to a new project proposal.

On Sept. 30, voters overwhelmingly approved the referendum for an all-inclusive facility that would house all county departments. RDG Bussard Dikis of Des Moines won the architectural contract and brought forth the plan for a two-story, 60,000 square-foot structure.

In early 2004, the supervisors revealed a bold timeline for the project that encompassed design, bid letting and awards, two phases of construction, demolition of the old facilities, relocation and project completion by the autumn of 2006. That timetable would soon prove unachievable.

On Feb. 24, 2004, the supervisors reached an agreement to proceed with the hiring of an owner's representative, an on-site professional to safeguard county interests during the arduous and lengthy construction period.

The county officially took possession of the historic Baptist Church and its property at 19th Street and Ithaca Avenue, kitty corner from the new courthouse construction site. After the church council donated the structure to the county, the owner's representative established a construction office there. The church will be relocated later to make way for courthouse parking.

Test excavations were conducted on the courthouse site to examine and collect soil samples to confirm load-bearing qualities and to observe any potential water intrusions over an extended time period.

In April, the first announced time delay on the project was reported. Engineering and design complexities of the new jail system and the Emergency 911 communications center - among other unanticipated stays - had put the project 30 days behind schedule. Bid letting was delayed until mid-July, with construction anticipated to begin in the fall.

Bob Schlaeger of Sanborn, Iowa, was hired as the county's owner representative and began work in May of 2004. His first action was to present the supervisors with a plan for the construction of a utility building and an 180-foot monopole E-911 tower on the Baptist Church property to service the communications center.

In July of 2004, McHan Construction Inc. of Sioux City, with a bid of $11,546,000, won the construction bid for the new courthouse project. By early August, pickup trucks and construction equipment bearing the McHan logo began appearing on the scene and the first earth was moved.

On Aug. 12, former U.S. Congressman and lakes area philanthropist Berkley Bedell delivered the keynote address at a groundbreaking ceremony at the site.

"I believe the construction of this new county courthouse and jail and 911 communications center will have a profound influence on the future of Dickinson County and the future of all the generations that follow us," Bedell told a large, enthusiastic crowd of state, county and city dignitaries.

John Tonsfeldt, director of veterans affairs for the county, announced plans for the construction of a veterans' memorial plaza as part of the new courthouse plaza.

Tonsfeldt said the project was conceptualized around a tower - 18 square-feet in diameter by 62-feet tall - that would be constructed on the northeast quadrant of the courthouse site facing the junction of Highway 9 and Hill Avenue. Also incorporated into the theme will be stone monuments bearing the names of those Dickinson County men and women - from the late 1850s to present - who lost their lives in combat or in some other manner while on active duty.

Construction begins, delays mount

In February of 2005, massive structural steel beams began to stretch skyward from the foundation work of the new courthouse project. However, challenges began to arise to keep the bold project on or under budget and on schedule.

"There is definitely a shortage of manpower on the job right now," project manager Schlaeger said at the time. McHan Inc. co-owner Mike McCline admitted the shipping of some of the critical construction supplies - especially structural steel - were being delayed, but added: "I'm confident we can make up the delays, and when it's all said and done, the people of Dickinson County will have a building they can be proud of."

Keeping the project within budget became even more daunting as building supply costs escalated incrementally.

"We have a huge responsibility to the public to be fiscally prudent as this project moves along," Supervisor Paul Johnson said.

Construction continued on Phase I of the courthouse as the historic 1893 structure stood defiantly in its shadow. The old and the new stood side-by-side, one a century-old landmark doomed for destruction, the other a benchmark for the future.

In mid-summer of 2005, demolition crews razed the aged courthouse, drawing crowds of curious spectators who witnessed the demise of one of Dickinson County's most historic structures. In its wake loomed the sparkling Phase I of the county's new ediface.

Two-and-a-half years after the referendum vote, workers began moving the first county departments into Phase I of the new courthouse in March of 2006. Along with the state-of-the-art jail, communications center and sheriff's department, the offices of the assessor, recorder, treasurer, veterans affairs, clerk of courts, including courtrooms and law library, and community services fought an eight-inch snowstorm to relocate into the new structure.

"It's significant to finally have some of the departments up and running," said Roger Gilbert, who replaced Schlaeger as the county's owner representative. "People have been anxious for this moment."

Behind schedule, but on budget

Almost two years of construction on Phase II followed, marred by ongoing delays caused mostly by weather slowdowns and postponements in the shipping of construction materials.

After what seemed an eternity, the remaining county departments made their final moves into the building this January. Despite the delays and frustrations over punch list malfunctions since resolved, raves over the new courthouse are commonplace.

"It's gorgeous," Supervisor Johnson said. "It will forever change the landscape of Spirit Lake."

Supervisor Mardi Allen was the watchdog over the project's $14.9 million budget, wrangling with delays while nationwide construction costs escalated.

"Amazingly, the project will be completed within budget," Allen said. "We owed it to the taxpayers to be diligent. Planning the construction in two phases and constant monitoring were the keys to keeping costs in line."

If constructed today, the project would bear an estimated cost of $21 million.

Exterior work on the veterans memorial plaza continues. This spring, after the old engineer and county attorney buildings are razed, an eco-friendly parking lot - featuring Low Impact Development techniques to manage storm water runoff - will be constructed. After final landscaping is completed, a dedication ceremony is scheduled for July 27.

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