Residents may soon see construction going on at the federal courthouse in El Dorado, as the facility gets what are being called some long overdue security upgrades.
In a news release, the U.S. Marshals Service announced that four federal courthouses are or will be undergoing construction for security upgrades, including El Dorado and Texarkana facilities. Courthouses in Fort Smith and Fayetteville are currently under construction, and El Dorado and Texarkana are next on the list.
Dewaine Allen, chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Western District of Arkansas, said in the release that the El Dorado facility, which is described as very old and historic, “is one of our most unsafe courthouses within Western Arkansas, arguably the United States - enhancements there are long overdue.”
Reached by phone last week, Allen said, like the facility in El Dorado, many former post offices have been converted into federal courthouses across the country and when the buildings were constructed, there weren’t the same kind of security considerations as there are today.
“Back when these buildings were constructed, you didn’t have domestic terrorism, you didn’t have mass shootings, and they simply weren’t designed as a secure facility,” Allen said.
Allen said the El Dorado facility on North Jackson lacks secure parking for those who work inside the courthouse and has no secure sallyport to bring defendants into the courthouse.
“The entire rear of the building is just completely open,” Allen said. “There’s no fence … there’s no vehicular barriers around the building at all.”
Another issue is that the building is very close to the road, Allen said, noting that many federal buildings are set some distance from the road.
When it comes to internal upgrades, Allen said it is very difficult to run wiring to install cameras and other electronic equipment because the building is “practically solid granite.”
“It makes it very difficult to build anything inside for security measures,” Allen said. “It’s just completely unsafe in so many areas … it just simply was not designed ever to be a secure court facility.”
Allen noted that renovations like these are costly and difficult, because of the historic nature of the building, which can limit the types of modifications that can be made. He added that the historic commission will be able to weigh in on the upgrades with the U.S. General Services Administration.
The El Dorado facility also is not owned by the government, Allen said, which adds another layer to the bureaucratic process.
The federal courthouse in El Dorado is owned by real estate developer Pete Dunn, who purchased the building in 2009. In 2015, Dunn announced that the U.S. General Services Administration signed a 15-year lease to extend the occupancy of the Federal District Court, U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Probation Office and Federal District Clerk in the El Dorado location.
Allen said the owner will be involved and have buy-in on the work before it can proceed, but leasing the building means another consideration has to be made.
“You have to balance how much money you’re going to put into a private building that, at some point, may not be rented anymore versus public safety and the safety of the tenants within it,” Allen said.
Allen emphasized that the work being done on all four facilities is security-driven and not being done for aesthetic purposes.
Allen said the Fayetteville courthouse is expected to be complete by the end of October, at a cost of just over $1 million, and the Fort Smith courthouse is expected to be complete by the end of November, at a cost of roughly $900,000.
Exterior and some interior security upgrades for the El Dorado facility are in the design phase now, Allen said. There is no current cost estimate for the work or a specific timeline, he said, but he noted that once the funding is set up, there is an extensive design process that includes the U.S. Marshals collaborating with the U.S. General Services Administration.
“We are going to get it done,” Allen said.