In its first public meeting, the Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp. sought to shore up support Friday for the detention center part of a two-building complex proposed for downtown Omaha.
The nonprofit corporation’s only formal action Friday was to approve making its future meetings and financial records public. The bulk of the hourlong Friday session was spent on discussion and public comment, much of it focusing on the youth center part of the proposal.
The proposal calls for the construction of a 10-story Douglas County Courthouse annex to house juvenile and family courts, related services and offices for county attorneys and public defenders at 18th and Harney Streets. It also proposes building a new Douglas County Youth Center next door.
It would cost an estimated $120 million. The Douglas County Board and the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission have taken preliminary steps toward borrowing money to build it but have yet to approve that financing or actual buildings.
Opponents, led by County Board member Jim Cavanaugh, have focused mainly on the youth detention center proposal and on the process, including creating the private, nonprofit corporation to develop the project and not putting the bonds to a public vote.
The corporation’s board members are Douglas County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson; Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine; Omaha City Council President Ben Gray; Douglas County Board member P.J. Morgan; John Christensen, chair of the Public Building Commission; and David Levy, a member of the Omaha Housing Authority Board. Morgan and Kleine did not attend Friday’s meeting.
Bruce Carpenter, a senior vice president of HDR Inc., said at the meeting that a new youth center next to the courthouse would reduce the number of youths who are detained and the time they spend in detention. He said other jurisdictions that have combined those facilities, such as Hennepin County, Minnesota, have had good results in reducing youth detention.
The Public Building Commission is paying HDR Inc. for predesign services as part of $1.45 million in preliminary work. Carpenter said the firm is interviewing representatives of the people who would use the buildings while working toward designs.
Ten people from the public attended the meeting. One of them, child advocate and consultant Kathy Bigsby Moore, told the board that she initially had doubts about the youth center proposal. But she said she now believes that it would best serve children and families.
Another speaker, Carole Zacek, criticized the lack of public bidding for the work that HDR, project manager Burlington Capital Group and construction manager Kiewit are expected to do on the proposal. She questioned why alternatives were not being considered.
LaVon Stennis echoed Gray’s call to make diversity and inclusion in contracting a priority in the project. She also urged the board to include families who have been involved in Juvenile Court in the process.
Borgeson said after the meeting that she and other proponents of the proposal weren’t open enough earlier in the process but are trying to correct that.
“There were good comments today,” she said. “People brought up good issues that we need to not just talk about, but act on.”