Riley County commissioners are still debating what to do with the former First Christian Church space.

Commissioners said they will revisit the discussion on the church with other department heads at a later time and have BBN Architects meet with them on the status of the project and space needs.

Officials provided context to the county government’s purchase of the church building to the commissioners who joined the board in January.

Riley County Clerk Rich Vargo said previous commissions have discussed county office and district courthouse needs since the late ’90s.

The last commission purchased the 112-year-old church at 115 Courthouse Plaza in May 2020 for $852,000.

The county hopes to use the area for office space, whether it’s in the old church or a new building.

County commission chairman John Ford, who was on the board that approved the purchase, said he initially supported buying the church, but with no clear direction for the building, he retracted that support as he felt there were other priorities needing to be addressed during the pandemic. Ford voted against the purchase, but former commissioners Marvin Rodriguez and Ron Wells approved it.

Vargo recommended the board demolish the aging structure, make the space a parking lot for now and eventually start anew as that was the original plan he’d discussed with church leaders.

He said BBN Architects developed an evaluation of the church, a space planning report and a county offices master plan about a decade ago, but even if the county completely renovated the church and remodeled their current facility, it still wouldn’t have enough space for various departments’ needs now.

“I can’t think of one office that would tell you they probably don’t need one and a half times to double the amount of space they have right now,” Vargo said.

Vargo encouraged the board to think beyond the near future and the feasibility of a new space to last beyond their lifetimes.

Commissioner Kathryn Focke suggested working around the original portion of the church as part of its historical preservation, but Commissioner Greg McKinley said upon viewing the church in-person, it appeared much of the old sanctuary was torn out during remodels. Ford added the maze-like layout of the church in its current state likely would not be efficient for providing services out of it.

“I like the historical value too, but I also have to look at the present and the future too,” Ford said.

Riley County District Court Administrator DaLanna Nichols and Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson also advocated for more space for court services.

“We are maxed out, we have no more room,” Nichols said. “We have a jury trial in there, we have 100 people in there, we have mainly one set of bathrooms on the second floor and we have two stalls in each.”

Nichols said the court would like to house all its various arms in one space as the county attorney, community corrections and Sunflower CASA operate out of different buildings. She said court officials would like to be part of the conversation on a new site or building.

She and Wilkerson added the current space sometimes has witnesses, jurors and defendants occupying the same space outside of courtrooms, and when there are major cases going on at the same time, there can be many people crowded into an area.

Land burning

After Riley County Fire District crews battled multiple major grass fires in the past two weeks, County Emergency Management Director Russel Stukey said he is meeting with the Riley County Attorney’s Office to potentially impose fines on landowners related to the Blue River Hills Road fire and Condray Road fires.

The incidents collectively burned an estimated 800 acres and started because of rekindlings of previous controlled burns.

Stukey said he also is discussing with the attorney’s office and Riley County Counselor Clancy Holeman about revising and updating the county’s burn resolution in the next few months.

The resolution outlines what can be burned and permit requirements.