Aberdeen trying to return federal court to city
By Dirk Lammers
ABERDEEN (AP) — Workers soon will begin installing a new fire sprinkler system in the old federal courthouse in Aberdeen in hopes that the renovation will help return court proceedings to the Hub City.
The city of Aberdeen took ownership of the building through eminent domain late last year after the relationship between the U.S. General Services Administration and former building owner Green World Aberdeen deteriorated. The GSA, an independent agency that handles federal property, had been leasing the space since it sold the building to Green World in 2008, but it decided to let the lease expire because the landlord was not keeping up with new building requirements.
U. S. District Judge Charles Kornmann suggested the city use eminent domain, which allows government entities to take possession of property if doing so is in the public good.
Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen said losing federal court proceedings would hurt the city and region.
"For a person here with a civil case that is at the federal level, you have to drive all the way to Pierre or Sioux Falls," Levsen said.
The city moved forward with the purchase of the downtown building after a Brown County jury set its value at $525,000 in October. The city is using $1 million in bond money to pay for the building and its renovation.
Officials decided to begin the design and installation of the sprinkler system ahead of any official requirements from the GSA, as the upgrades would be necessary regardless of local codes or any future lease agreement, said city attorney Adam Altman.
"So we figured we might as well start that process since it is the most time-consuming and involved," he said in an email.
Altman said there are likely to be other tasks identified by the GSA if it chooses to move back into the building, and the city will work to address the issues as they arise.
In the meantime, Kornmann and his staff are leasing office space in another downtown location and court hearings are being held elsewhere. Kornmann, who is on senior status meaning he handles a reduced number of cases, is out of state and could not be reached for comment.
Levsen said a management company will be handling the building's operations after the court moves back in, and the city intends eventually to sell the property to a local company.
"We don't want to be a landlord," Levsen said. "We don't want to be in competition with people with private commercial space to rent, which is what we have."
Finding additional tenants for a building that houses a federal courthouse is no easy task, the mayor said, as everything above the first floor has to go through security.
"You can't have any retail. There's not much you can do," Levsen said. "So it's going to take a fairly unique tenant other than the court, although the rent just from the federal offices we could put in there would more than amortize our costs."