After years of planning the state of Wyoming is finally going ahead with a multi-year effort to renovate the state capitol building and to completely re-do the neighboring Herschler building.
Construction Manager Dennis Egge stands outside the building as he watches a variety of people tap on the capitol exterior.
“The design team has actually looked at every stone on this building, they have taken a forklift and looked at it. These guys are looking at it from a means and method, what’s the best way budget wise to make this work.”
Inside Egge and his crew have cut holes in ceilings, have peeled off paint and studied old renovation documents as they try to restore the building to its early 1900's state.
The legislature started saving money during the start of the energy boom and voted to spend additional money on the now 300 million dollar project last winter. So why are they doing this? Senator Tony Ross of Cheyenne said that the Capitol is falling apart.
“The Capitol has no sprinkler system, has no fire suppression system, it has no H-Vac, the plumbing is deteriorating, we had a whole leak that was leaking down on the House floor before the last session. If we don’t do something and we don’t do it now, we risk losing this national landmark.”
For Ross, safety is a real concern.
“We’ve done all the analysis of what would happen if there was a fire and quite frankly people would die because there is no way to get them out…period.”
As the plan to renovate the Capitol was being developed, it occurred to lawmakers that they needed to something about the adjoining Herschler building. A good idea in the 70’s, it quickly deteriorated and a number of agencies moved out. The agencies that exist there are crammed next to each other with divider after divider separating office space. Construction Manager Egge said it’s a mess.
“The Herschler building, someone coming into an agency can be lost for hours and that’s part of what’s going to be changing, make the agency space, more accessible, better traffic flow for the pedestrians coming in, walking through the different offices is not going to be a continuous thing anymore, each agency is going to be divided up with easier access.”
And they’re going to be adding an executive office building to house employees of the top elected officials. Right now a number of agencies and state employees are spread across Cheyenne. With this renovation, most will be located in this central location where people can find them. Project managers say that in the long term this will save the state millions in rent costs.
But if you ask legislators about the most important change, the answer is bigger committee rooms in the capitol. Right now most rooms can jam in 25 or so people. But many can’t get in. Ross said that’s been a problem for years.
“People standing in the halls trying to get in hoping to get an opportunity to speak and if they have that opportunity to speak they don’t even know what was said before. So this whole plan is opening up these legislative committee rooms into big public rooms to allow to access by the public to their government.”
This plan calls for eight to ten large committee rooms that will seat large numbers of people with the ability for people to watch on-line and possibly testify without being in Cheyenne. There will also be interactive sites teaching people about the government process. While it sounds great, some wonder if the state should be doing this at a time when energy revenue is dropping. Senator Charles Scott tried to remove the renovation funding from the state budget during the last legislative session.
“I really wonder if we ought not to put a hold on this thing for a while and think about what we are really doing.”
Senate Majority leader and self-proclaimed fiscal conservative Eli Bebout was among those argued for the project. Bebout said an oversight committee will keep spending in check. That committee hired a firm a few weeks ago tasked with keeping the project within the budget. House Minority leader Mary Throne strongly favors moving forward.
“And also I think it would be good for the economy to do it maybe when we are a little slower. I mean waiting only makes the costs go up.”
By the end of the summer, top elected officials and state agencies will be re-located throughout Cheyenne and next year, the legislature will hold its session in a large building called the Jonah Business center. The legislature will be there for three years. Senator Ross said it will be fine.
“It’ll be Spartan, but it will get us through.”
Representative Throne says the end result will be worth it.
“It will really be a show piece for state government.”
The renovation is scheduled to be completed in time for 2019 legislative session.