Columbia County celebrates buildings

August 20, 2018
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County supervisors, employees and citizens join Columbia County Board Chairman Vern Gove in the ribbon-cutting ceremony dedicating the new Health and Human Services building at 111 E. Mullett St. Just to the right of Gove is HHS Director Dawn Woodard.

There was pride and joy in the voice of Cheryl Davis, as she proclaimed, “This is where I work.”

It isn’t every day that members of the public can see where Davis works — in the highly secured offices of the Columbia County Management Information Services Department, on the third floor of the year-old Administration Building, 112 E. Edgewater St.

But Saturday was a special day.

In the words of many speakers at the dedication of Columbia County’s $46 million building project, it was a historic day.

“Today, we are celebrating all the hard work and accomplishments of the last four years,” said County Board Supervisor Matt Rohrbeck of Portage, master of ceremonies for the dedication.

According to Columbia County Building and Grounds Director Cory Wiegel, 250 chairs were set up under a tent in Market Square for the speeches before ribbon-cuttings at the new Administration Building, the new Health and Human Services Building at 111 E. Mullett St. and the remodeled Columbia County Courthouse at 400 DeWitt St.

Every one of those chairs was filled, and there were dozens of people standing in the back.

And, after the speeches were done and the ribbons were cut, many attendees toured all three buildings.

Seldom seen

The open house included a rare opportunity for the public to cross the enclosed walkway across the Portage Canal, which connects the first floor of the Admin Building to the second floor of the Health and Human Services Building. Normally, access to that bridge is available only to county employees who are issued an electronic key card.

There was a lot more to see than the giant goldfish swimming in the canal, which many visitors tried to spot from the walkway.

There were, for example, the Management Information Services offices where Davis works.

In her 39 years of county employment — she’s deputy MIS director — Davis has worked in three places.

The MIS offices were originally on the first floor of what used to be the Carl Frederick Administration Building, but which is now the courthouse. When that building was remodeled in 1993, Davis said, the offices were moved to the basement of the Annex at 120 W. Conant St., a structure that was torn down this year and turned into a public parking lot.

Now, she told visitors Saturday, her new office is not only more spacious and secure than the previous offices, but in the autumn its west-facing picture windows offer a magnificent vista of the red, gold and orange foliage on the Baraboo Hills.

Katie Day, administrator of the Division of Children and Families, and her sister, Becky Mulhern, director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center, spoke in tandem at the dedication ceremony. They said the new HHS Building is a boon for employees who now have private offices, where they can more easily maintain client confidentiality.

But even more important, they said, is how the building benefits the people who need HHS services.

New and improved

The former HHS building, in Portage’s industrial park, was, at 20,000 square feet, less than half the size of the new one, and some clients had to walk to it along the shoulders of Highway 16 — in some cases, pushing babies in strollers.

Visitors on Saturday got glimpses of several spaces that are typically not public, but which offer vital services. One of them: the space set aside for supervised visitations between children and non-custodial parents. In the old building, that space consisted of a few toys and books crammed into a conference room. In the new building, there is child-size and adult-size seating, more toys and a changing table.

In the ADRC’s dining area — which will next month become the site for Portage’s senior congregate meals — a luncheon spread was offered to visitors, courtesy of J.H. Findorff and Sons, the Madison firm that oversaw the project’s construction.

Those who walked (or rode a shuttle bus, driven by Supervisor Andy Ross of Poynette) to the courthouse also saw some seldom-seen spaces.

For example, the second floor, where the courtrooms are, now has four conference rooms, one of them secured for in-custody prisoners who need to talk to their lawyers. Previously, attorney-client conversations outside of court — including those involving juvenile defendants — had to be held in the public hallway.

All three Columbia County Circuit Court judges — Todd Hepler, W. Andrew Voigt and Troy Cross — invited the public into their courtrooms, jury rooms and chambers. Previously, anybody could walk into a judge’s chambers. Now, there are anterooms, with locked doors to the chambers.

But the most important improvement, in Hepler’s view, is the expansion of what used to be a tiny hearing room on the second floor’s northwest corner. Now, he said, it’s spacious enough for almost any non-jury case, and visiting judges can use it.

Stability, utility, beauty

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, a guest speaker at the dedication, said he was particularly drawn to the courthouse as he reflected on the qualities of public buildings touted by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius: stability, utility and beauty.

Kelly said a courthouse should embody the solemnity and sacredness of a nation in which all people, regardless of wealth or identity, are subject to the rule of law. The remodeled courthouse does that, he said.

“Your buildings are solid and competently executed,” he said. “They will last for generations.”

Findorff President David Beck-Engel said between 350 and 400 craftspeople worked on the buildings, many of them Columbia County residents.

“We knew, very early on, that this would be a very iconic project for Columbia County and the city of Portage,” he said.

Two of the speakers — Portage Mayor Rick Dodd and Mark Aquino, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources secretary’s director for Southern Wisconsin — touted the cooperation between the city, county and state that made the building project possible.

The state’s role was evident in the long-overdue cleanup of the canal segment near the new buildings while they were under construction, Aquino said.

And the city, from the project’s inception, was in on the discussions, Dodd said — including the one in October 2014, when the canal-side location was chosen — thus keeping the bulk of Columbia County government in downtown Portage.

Beth Prochaska, executive vice president of the Madison design firm Potter Lawson, said the project was “a labor of love” for all the designers involved, including Project Manager Ron Locast.

“Some of the stuff that happened here was truly inspiring,” she said.

But it wasn’t always easy, Voigt said. The courts, for example, had to move twice –—once to the newly completed HHS Building to makeshift facilities, and once back into the courthouse once the remodeling was completed.

“It was astonishing that employees cooperated as well as they did, with as little complaint as they did,” Voigt said. “To see where we were, to what we are now, it’s hard to believe we covered all that ground.”

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