AMIDON — The smallest population county in North Dakota has a big decision to make.
Slope County with 727 residents may replace its original wood courthouse with a new brick-faced building within the year.
The nearly 100-year-old building is interesting, its floors are creaky and the old jail serves as a safety vault for county records.
It also is the last wood frame courthouse in the state.
But its useful life may have expired in this modern era when all citizens should be able to use a public building, instead of just those that can climb steps to the main and second-floor offices.
There are no fire escapes and Kisten Homelvig, who’s the zoning director and county agent assistant, says she's got an escape plan all mapped out in her head: She'll exit an office window, drop down to a first-story roof and lower herself to the ground, no problem.
At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Slope County Commission will hold a meeting with county residents to talk about plans for the new building. The meeting will be at the courthouse.
County commissioner Mike Sonsalla said he thinks the commission will go ahead with construction, after talking about it for a couple of years.
“I can’t see not, unless there are a lot of people there who think we’re crazy. There’s probably a lot who think we’re crazy anyway,” he said.
Sonsalla said now’s a good time to make the move. The county has the cash, nobody’s taxes will be increased and the old building needs a lot of work, he said.
“People need a decent place to work. They really do. By the time we fix up the old building, the expense would go a long way toward a new one,” he said.
If anyone’s interested ahead of the meeting, there is a set of architectural drawings at the courthouse for a 12,000-square foot courthouse in a traditional one-story setup. Architect Al Fitterer says the structure will impart a western flair when viewed from the front facing Highway 85.
He said the building will cost about $3 million, depending on how costs come in when bids are opened this fall.
“The bids will tell the story,” he said. The commissioners want a standard concrete-surrounded vault with a three-hour fire rating because fire responders would be coming from all over the county.
The fate of the old courthouse isn’t certain.
It’s been added on to over the years and it’d be tricky business if someone wanted to purchase it and move it elsewhere.
“There’s some thought that the locals might want some part or all of the old building. If they remove the additions, it might be possible to get the older portion,” Fitterer said.
Homelvig said it’ll be sad to see the old building go. “I like the history and the closeness of all the offices,” she said.
Sheriff Pat Lorge said he’ll need more than his one-room department if the oil play moves into Slope County. There are eight drilling rigs in counties around Slope County, but none actually in Slope now.
Lorge said the basement is crumbling and it’s difficult for the public to get around in the courthouse.
“What’s to feel sad about?” he said.
A lot of history will come tumbling down if and when the old white building goes. It’s a 100-year-old monument to 1914, when Slope County was formed after a vote to split off the southern portion of Billings County.