Guilford County’s old jail at 401 W. Sycamore St. in downtown Greensboro may be as quiet as a mouse right now, but it’s about to get very noisy. Soon, workers will start the expensive and highly involved process of completely gutting the building and turning it into Guilford County’s new Law Enforcement Center.
Once the work is complete, the old jail – most of which has been largely unused for the past six years – will house the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department’s administrative offices, a new regional crime and DNA lab, state probation and parole workers and many other law enforcement functions as well.
The project, which will cost about $14 million, is expected to be complete in October 2019.
Once the old jail is the new Law Enforcement Center, the county plans to level the Otto Zenke building at 400 W. Washington St. – the current Sheriff’s Department headquarters – and build a much needed parking lot there to serve the new needs at the old jail on the same block.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said the Otto Zenke building has a number of issues and structural problems and he added that those were exacerbated about 10 years ago when a massive flood filled the basement with water.
The Sheriff’s Department still has some services in the old jail and Barnes said he expects those to continue operating there over the next year while the renovation project takes place. Much of the interior of the building is jail cells and it’s not easy turning small concrete enclosures into office space, but Barnes said most of the process will involve tearing out cell walls because the Sheriff’s Department’s part of the new building will use “an open office concept.” He said that’s less expensive than other options.
“They’re tearing everything out,” he said.
Barnes, who right now has one of the nicest offices of any public official in the state – one that includes a shower and a tub, in fact – may not have as nice an office in the new Law Enforcement Center, but he will at least have a door and four walls – if, that is, he’s reelected in November.
Barnes added that, though it’s an old jail, there’s a lot in there the county should be able to sell or reuse. He said that everything that might be sold or reappropriated by Guilford County has been photographed, so that the items the county doesn’t reuse can be auctioned off on the govdeals.com website, which is basically an eBay for old government goods.
“Everything that can be sold will be sold, unless we reuse it,” the sheriff said.
For instance, some refrigerators in the old jail may be moved to the new jail, and there are some durable furnishings that others will no doubt want to buy.
“There are stainless steel sinks and stainless steel commodes, and bunks and light fixtures,” he said, offering just a few examples.
Once the old jail is gutted, the sound of jackhammers and other demolition equipment will fill the air and the massive removal of debris will follow.
“We may have to close down Sycamore Street at one point,” Barnes said of the short street that runs next to the jail.
It doesn’t sound like a great environment for Sheriff’s Department services that will remain in the basement and be open to the public during the extensive renovation.
Some services did have to move. The Sheriff’s Department’s Civil Procedures office – which issues gun permits among other things – has moved to the nearby Guilford County Courthouse into space that was once used by the Guilford County Register of Deeds office. But that space is less than ideal, the sheriff said, because people have to come in through the plaza entrance, wait in court lines, go through security and then go to the other end of the courthouse. Barnes said he wanted to see a new entrance put in the courthouse for the office but there were concerns that cutting a door in would undermine the structure of the building.
The top floor of the old jail will be a new regional crime lab and will also have area reserved for further department growth.
“It will be a regional, for us and the surrounding counties, paid for by us and the surrounding counties,” Barnes said.
On the floor below that will be a training area, gym room and classrooms. Those are now at the Zenke building. The sheriff’s office will be on the main floor of the old jail along with other administrative offices, two or three floors are likely to house probation and parole officers.
Barnes said that when he was in his undercover days as sheriff’s deputy, his first office was in the old jail (which was then a relatively new jail).
Since the sudden departure of former Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece last month, the county has no facilities director, but it does have plenty of projects in the works. It is also building a new Emergency Services vehicle maintenance repair facility and a new animal shelter.
Emergency Services Director Jim Albright said the maintenance facility project is moving along well.
“We are at 90 percent design now, and hope to have design complete by late July,” Albright said.
The department has waited about 15 years to get the facility funded and on track, and, like the old jail, it will take a while to finish.
“It would then be bid, and I have no realistic completion date until that bid comes back,” Albright said.
The facility will be built in two phases. Phase 1, Albright said, is “all the site prep and civil work, and the construction of a large indoor vehicle storage area, logistics and warehouse and employee locker room.”
“There will also be a detached maintenance facility adjacent,” he said.
“Phase 2 would be training and administrative space and a new Emergency Operations Center,” Albright added, referring to a command center that area emergency officials would operate out of if a major disaster struck.
Guilford County is also in the process of building a new Guilford County Animal Shelter, which was recently estimated to cost $18.5 million for the decked out version. County staff also presented a scaled down $14 million version, but county commissioners want to spend a couple of million less than that.
Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips said that the county is juggling a lot of projects right now and county officials need to be careful about not taking on too much at one time. He said the county must also keep a responsible eye on the dollars spent on all these projects.
“It’s a matter of prioritizing,” he said.
He also said there are a lot of other projects county officials would like to see get done in the future but it’s a question of money.
“We all define needs a little differently,” Phillips said, adding that there are “wants” and there are “needs,” and the two aren’t the same.
Phillips also said some county officials are worried about inflation if projects are drawn out over time but he thinks it’s equally important to have a clear understanding of what’s truly needed and what can be done given the available county dollars.
“We are taking things in bites,” Phillips said.
He said he’s glad these essential projects are now moving forward.
“The bottom line is that the priority projects need to get done instead of constantly talking about it,” Phillips said.