HELENA — Downtown Helena’s “Pillar Building,” a Fuller Avenue building notable for the large white columns in front, has been empty since Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana moved to new offices in 2016.
Starting Jan. 4, that will change, as the building becomes the new home of Helena Municipal Court.
Construction crews are putting the final touches on a new courtroom inside the building, which is adjacent to the new Helena Police Department and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s offices. They’ve been working for about three months to get it ready for January.
“I am very excited,” said Municipal Court Judge Anne Peterson. “It’s been a very long process to get this through, but we’ve had a lot of good work by the city commission, the multiple city managers just pushing this project through – and then, of course, the people actually doing the groundwork on the project have been fantastic to keep us going and get us in on time.”
The court is moving out of the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse to make room for the county’s newly added second justice of the peace. Starting next month, judge-elect Mark Piskolich will take over the old municipal courtroom.
Peterson said, while they’re moving, they don’t have access to everything they’d need to fully serve the public, so they decided to temporarily close the court on Dec. 16.
“We have 75 years’ worth of records that we had to transfer down here, as well as all of our current open cases and then, of course, all the technology – which is even more extensive now due to COVID,” she said.
The city of Helena and Lewis and Clark County purchased the Pillar Building, along with the neighboring Law and Justice Center, several years ago. Troy Sampson, Helena’s community facilities superintendent, said it had to be brought up to code before anyone could move in.
“This portion of the facility, the Pillar section, didn’t have a fire alarm system installed in it, so we did have to do that to bring it up to current fire code,” he said. “Any entrance doors, ADA-width, we had to make sure we had the proper doors installed for that.”
The new municipal courtroom will be larger and, unlike the current space, fully accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We have seen quite a bit of witnesses – car accidents, things like that – where you’re in crutches or in wheelchairs coming into court,” said Peterson. “It was very important for this space to be functioning for those members of the public.”
Court clerks will now work from behind a window, for security reasons. Overall, though, Peterson said the public shouldn’t notice many changes in the court’s operations.
Sampson estimated the total cost of the municipal court project at just under $490,000. He said, as the tenant, the city will cover most of those costs – though the city and county will share the costs to make the improvements required by code.