The spending package Congress adopted last week should move ahead plans for a new federal courthouse in downtown Chattanooga.
The $1.5 trillion appropriations measure approved by both the House and Senate late Thursday includes another $85 million to build a federal courthouse in Chattanooga to replace the aging Joel Solomon Federal Building, which doesn't meet today's safety, prisoner security, and disability access requirements for a federal courthouse.
"We're really long overdue for a new federal courthouse in Chattanooga," said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, who included the funding in the omnibus package. "I love old buildings, but people who have to work there all the time have had a lot of problems with the heating, the air conditioning, the leaks and certainly the security layout."
With an estimated cost of more than $218 million, the new federal courthouse will bring one of the biggest new investments into downtown Chattanooga since the Tennessee Valley Authority built its $200 million Chattanooga Office Complex in 1985 and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee erected its $299 million headquarters atop Cameron Hill in 2009.
The planned 186,000-square-foot building would house the U.S. District Court and Chattanooga Bankruptcy Court, along with facilities for the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Marshals Service Office, among other federal agencies.
In Sen. Lamar Alexander's last year in the U.S. Senate in 2020, he secured $94.5 million for site design and construction of a new federal courthouse in Chattanooga. Fleischmann said the $85 million added for the project in the omnibus spending package should be enough to launch work on the project.
Before construction begins on a new courthouse, however, the project must still be authorized through the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the General Services Administration, the government agency that builds and operates most federal buildings, must select a site for the federal complex.
The General Services Administration determined in 1999 that a new courthouse was needed in Chattanooga. But Congress has yet to fully fund and authorize such a courthouse replacement, which was not rated as high of a priority as other courthouses funded over the past couple of decades in Nashville, Knoxville and Huntsville, Alabama.
Chattanooga has moved up to No. 2 on the government's priority list, behind only Hartford, Connecticut. The General Services Administration began soliciting potential site proposals for the new federal courthouse in January. The existing facility was erected in 1933.
"Because of inadequacies in the existing building's configuration and size, judges, prisoners and the public must use the same public elevators and corridors," the General Services Administration said in a report on the Solomon office building. "There are not enough courtroom holding cells. The prisoner access route to one of the magistrate judge courtrooms passes through the magistrate judge's chambers. Further, the building lacks a prisoner sally port, adequate setbacks or perimeter barriers."
General Services also said the building "suffers from ongoing water infiltration issues, mold issues and a major rat infestation throughout the building, as well as the presence of asbestos."
Fleischmann, who has one of his congressional field offices in the Solomon federal building and previously represented clients as a bankruptcy attorney when the U.S. Bankruptcy Court was still in the federal courthouse, said in a telephone interview that federal judges who use the courthouse approached him soon after he was elected to Congress in 2010 and told him of the building's deficiencies and need for a new facility.
The federal courthouse was built in the midst of the Great Depression and does not comply with federal access standards under the Americans with Disability Act.
"As I have said many times, the current Solomon courthouse is a beautiful old building, but, at this point, the emphasis must be on 'old,'" retired federal District Judge Sandy Mattice said in an email statement Monday. "While there have been many efforts over the decades to retrofit and maintain the building, it is currently totally inadequate to meet modern demands of security, technology and public access."
Fleischmann said the additional funding in the spending bill for the new courthouse was secured through programmatic funding. General Services has submitted a draft resolution to begin design and construction of the building, and Fleischmann said he expects the House to authorize the project this spring.
Ultimately, more funding may be required to finish the new complex, but Fleischmann said he hopes there is now adequate funding to begin site selection and designs for the courthouse.
Fleischmann and Mattice both said they hope the existing Solomon building can be re-purposed for other uses.
In Nashville, the former federal courthouse was converted to the Frist Art Museum, and in Knoxville, the 1934 federal building is still used as a post office building and also houses Tennessee state courts.
"I hope they preserve the old building, and I'd like to stay there, but we need a new courthouse," Fleischmann said. "There is a genuine security concern, and a new courthouse that will be constructed will have all of the modern technologies, the safety features and other needed improvements. When you think of all of the federal agencies that are in this building along with the federal judges, it's probably not the best fit for the 21st century."