Feature Photo: The Ector County Courthouse, built in 1938. Image: Google Maps.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Odessa (Ector County) — The Ector County Courthouse is 80 years old, falling apart, considered a safety hazard and everyone who works in the building knows it needs to be replaced.
Efforts to do just that have led to any number of epic fails. In 2013, the Commissioners Court conducted a feasibility study that put the cost estimate for a new courthouse at $95 million, then put a bond proposition on the ballot.
Following a spirited campaign that’s been memorialized in a pro-bond Facebook page, voters soundly rejected the proposition.
The majority ‘NO’ vote doesn’t change the fact that the plumbing and electrical is a mess, the building is overcrowded, there is no secure partition between prisoners and everyone else, the roof leaks, it would cost almost as much to repair as replace. And then there’s the former County Judge Ron Eckert’s juicy and now historic footnote about how he once had to bring a bucket to capture effluent from a sewage leak.
It probably should not have come as a surprise that voters would resist buying into a major downtown project with public funds. Downtown Odessa is more dead than alive. The central business district has an abundance of vacant commercial space, boarded up showroom windows, acres of scarcely used surface parking, and it’s been this way for years.
Still, downtown does have its believers. Two blocks north of the courthouse at Texas Avenue and 6th Street, the Odessa Marriott Hotel and Conference Center is under construction. In a central business district where nothing seems to happen, that’s close to being a miracle.
Construction of the Odessa convention center and hotel. The Ector Theater, for right, is also to be remodeled as part of the project. Image: Google Maps, June 2018.
A public-private partnership between the city and a group of hotel investors, the $77 million facility is scheduled for completion next summer. The 78,000-square-foot convention center hotel will include a 300 vehicle parking garage and a plaza.
The historic Ector Theater, which sits on the south corner of the same block will also be restored.
Not that there’s any direct correlation between the convention center hotel and the courthouse, but Commissioners Court is not entirely averse to the idea of getting its own P3 deal, although it’s not clear how that could happen.
In April, then County Judge Eckert organized a meeting between Commissioners Court and City Council for the purpose of exploring a collaboration of some sort. One of the ideas floated was that the county and city would swap land. In exchange for the courthouse site, the city would turnover the Odessa American and the adjacent employee parking lot; the city purchased the newspaper’s real estate at 222 E. Fourth Street in 2016 for $1.6 million.
In one scenario, the county courthouse (pink) would be swapped for the city-owned Odessa American properties (yellow). Inset image is of the conceptual floor plan for the failed 2013 bond-financed courthouse.
Structures on both sites would be demolished and the city would turn the old courthouse site into a green space.
Following that meeting, Eckert put to a vote a resolution to borrow $85 million for a new courthouse. There was just enough resistance to taking on that much debt that Eckert’s plan failed 3-to-2.
Frustrated, Eckert turned in his resignation, effective June 11. The commissioners appointed Debi Hays in his place.
Hays still likes the idea of the land swap. She has also said she is open to a P3, which implies some private third party would have the use of the building in some way. Eckert was opposed to a P3, noting that a courthouse isn’t like a ballpark and it isn’t the sort of institution where you sell the naming rights.
The Odessa American newspaper building. Image: Google Maps.
In July, the commissioners approved a new $40,000 feasibility study. They hired HOK, a multi-national architectural firm, to examine the possibility of building a courthouse either downtown or on land the county owns next to the Ector County Detention Center south of town.
It was noted in an Odessa American article that when HOK did such a study for Hidalgo County, the price of their new courthouse project dropped from $201 million to $147 million; HDR and ERO Architects are the project architects on the Hidalgo County Courthouse project.
Jeff Bradley, lower left, an architect with HOK’s Justice Division, discussed the scope of the study that was commissioned by Ector County. The Ector County Courthouse was remodeled once in the 1960s. Image: Google Maps.
Hays has also said she isn’t ruling out going to the voters with another bond proposition. Of course, that will not happen this November.
Meanwhile, the commissioners will wait and hope that HOK comes back with good news in the form of something that will get a majority vote on Commissioners Court for a debt-financed deal, or a win, however slim, through a future bond referendum.
One thing is certain. The commissioners aren’t going to try to save the old courthouse. And it’s still falling down.
Screenshot from a 2013 pro-bond video depicting overcrowded insecure halls in the old courthouse. Courtesy of Ector County.