Janell Cole column: 'Palace' might be a bargain
It didn't take much to get a tour of the huge new North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau building going up on the north side of Bismarck. One light-hearted dig calling it a "palace" reached them and the next day the bureau's fla...
It didn't take much to get a tour of the huge new North Dakota Workers Compensation Bureau building going up on the north side of Bismarck. One light-hearted dig calling it a "palace" reached them and the next day the bureau's flack was on the phone with the invite.
Is the bureau that defensive? Thin-skinned? Maybe a little. But pride in the 112,000-square-foot behemoth seems more like it.
This four-story, $11.5 million "Taj Mahal," as some observers call it, is not just huge, white and expensive. It has innovations and efficiencies that are rare, if not unique, to a North Dakota government building. A geothermal heat pump system will heat and cool it, powered by 286 wells, each 200 feet deep, drilled under what is now the parking lot. They power 50 heat pumps and a heat-recovery ventilation system. According to Curt Zimmerman, the facility manager, heat generated by interior equipment will be distributed through the building, making it even more self-maintained.
The architects, Ritterbush-Ellig-Hulsing of Bismarck, designed it with a public façade dominated by an atrium, part of the scheme to flood as much of the interior as possible with natural light. Add in programmable low-voltage lights, low-e glass and a few other power-saving features and the energy efficiency has an estimated five-to-seven year payback, said Tammy Dolan, the bureau's vice president for fiscal and information services.
As of a couple of weeks ago, construction was about 40 percent done, with completion set for May or June. It is ahead of schedule and under budget.
But let's back up.
Another reason the bureau is quick to respond to perceived criticism is that this is not just a Workers Comp building. Yes, it is owned by the bureau. But its name is the Century Center because it also will house several other state agencies. The bureau will rent space to the Department of Commerce, Parks and Recreation Department, the risk management office, child support division of the Department of Human Services and the North Dakota Council on the Arts. They will pay $13 per square foot rent, just a bit more than some of those agencies are paying to rent commercial space in downtown Bismarck. The bureau will save the half-million it has been spending on rent downtown.
Collecting rent instead of paying will bring the bureau a 5 to 7 percent return on investment, Zimmerman said. And, remember, the bureau uses no taxpayers' dollars. The agency runs itself on employers' premium dollars, not public funds.
Of course, the whole thing probably makes some of the bureau's critics gag. A chief reason the bureau's reserves are so flush that it can put up its own very large building is, to them, an sheer injustice: It is being built on the backs of injured workers whose benefits have been unjustly cut, denied or otherwise withheld over the past dozen years.
Whether you are for or against, it you can drive by for a peek. Take State Street (U.S. 83) north of Interstate 94 in Bismarck, and turn east on Century Avenue at Space Aliens. It's the big white building on the north side of the road.
Cole is The Forum's Capitol correspondent in Bismarck. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org