“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,” as the poet Richard Lovelace said, but they sure get in the way when you’re trying to create some office space in what used to be the Becker County Jail.

Becker County has over 14,000 square feet of vacant real estate on the floor above the sheriff’s office in the courthouse -- the only problem is that it’s full of old jail cells, steel doors and corridors.

The space has been empty since the new Becker County Jail opened last year on Highway 59 just north of Detroit Lakes.

On Tuesday, April 20, Becker County commissioners shot down a proposal to hire a consulting firm to do a space needs study on the old jail, which was built in 1977. Klein McCarthy Architects of St. Louis Park, Minn., submitted a proposal to complete the space study for up to $8,500, plus $500 in expenses. It would have been the first phase in a possible three-phase process.

Phase 2 would be conceptual development plans for the old jail, and “design narratives” for civil, structural, mechanical and electrical engineering for the concept master plan.

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Phase 3 would be cost estimates, including construction phasing, design and preliminary construction schedule. No cost estimates were provided for phases 2 and 3.

But the county board seemed to lack appetite for the project, perhaps because of the cost: “A total remodel may cost between $2.5 million and $3.5 million,” County Administrator Mike Brethorst said in a memo to the commissioners.

That estimate is based on “a general concept of construction costs based on the recent sheriff’s office remodel,” he wrote. Another option is to simply demolish the second floor above the sheriff’s office, which could easily cost $190,000, Brethorst said.

At a recent County Board meeting, Commissioner Larry Knutson said he would prefer to do the work in-house, and would like to see a state prison construction crew, housed in the current county jail, go to work tearing out the old jail infrastructure on the second floor of the courthouse.

Commissioner Barry Nelson also lacked enthusiasm for the project, saying he would like to explore the idea of more county employees working from home, to save money on office space.

Because of the large remodeling costs, and the fact that the county has no money set aside to pay for it, Brethorst proposed getting the space needs study done now, so that the project could be considered when money does become available.

Becker County has received $6.68 million in federal American Rescue Act dollars, but “we still have no clarification on what we can actually use the money for,” Knutson noted earlier in the meeting.

Brethorst said in an interview that the county will now conduct an internal review of its space needs, “to look at options for that old jail.” Recommendations from that review are expected to go to the County Board in 90 days.