Legislative Session to Commence in Jonah Building as Capitol Undergoes a Facelift

By Tom Lacock
Wyoming Medical Society

CHEYENNE – Old habits will be put on hold for a few years as the State Capitol in Cheyenne undergoes a large-scale renovation, which will keep it from hosting the state’s annual legislative sessions until 2018 or 2019.

The state capitol closed to the public on Dec. 9 to allow for the beginning of renovations, which are estimated to cost $219 million and will have state lawmakers meeting in the Jonah Building on east Pershing Ave. in Cheyenne for the foreseeable future. Holding the legislative session in the former Kmart and call center will mean some changes for those who work there. Senator Charles Scott (R-Casper) said he will miss the ability to walk the two miles from the Holiday Inn to the State House each day.

“I’ve been staying at the Holiday Inn, and that is a good two-mile walk in the morning when the weather was good,” says Scott.  “Of course you don’t want to be walking in a stiff wind going over the UP viaduct.”

House Member Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell) says she too will do away with some of her favorite aspects of the capitol’s downtown location such as lunch at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s cafeteria. Harvey has come to appreciate the underground parking available at the state capitol, and laughs as she says she sometimes gets claustrophobic and appreciates that her new spot at the Jonah Building sits on the outside of a row.

“I go so early in the morning and go home so late at night that I really appreciate the underground parking because my car would defrost,” she says. “I think It will be interesting to not have a gallery as well.”

A lack of a gallery inside the House and Senate chambers will be among the changes visitors to the temporary capitol will notice. Those interested in watching the work of the Senate and House can watch through windows in a separate room behind the lawmakers thanks to the building’s PA system. While the ceilings are certainly lower than in the chambers at the Capitol, there is actually more floor space for members of the House. Committee rooms are spread throughout the facility.

The renovation of the capitol itself is part of a $300 million project called the Capitol Square Project, which will also make improvements to the Herschler Building and the connector gallery. The capitol will see improvements to fire suppression, electrical systems, plumbing, adding restrooms, and improving committee meeting rooms.

The state capitol has needed repair for some time because a quarter of the building doesn’t have HVAC, much of the wiring has outlived its prescribed lifespan, and the building has no fire suppression and sprinklers. Parts of the dome have tears, corrosion, dents, and water infiltration.

The Herschler Building houses several state agencies and suffers from water corrosion in the walls and rotting window blocks. A four-story office building may also be built with elected officials and their offices moving to the new building. Six state agencies have moved to temporary quarters in an effort to let work get started.

According to the project’s website, the state has saved more than $100 million over the past 15 years  for this renovation project. The Legislature put together a joint task force to direct the the process with Sen. Tony Ross (R-Cheyenne) and Rep. Rosie Berger (R-Sheridan) as chairpersons.

Scott says he was first elected to the State House in the election of 1978 and later moved to the Senate in 1982, and cited some strong feelings about the old building at Capitol and 24th.

“My feeling on the floor in those first two days was ‘This is how a free people governs itself,’” Scott says. “I remember being real proud, and gratified at being a part of that. I still have quite a bit of that feeling. So much of what we do is to have radically different feelings in the population and conflicting interests, and how do you reconcile that in a way that moves the society forward in a way that everyone can live with?”

How that process looks in a different building remains to be seen, and Scott says he is interested to know what the impact is on the session itself.

“The question is how much will the change degrade the performance of the legislature in those temporary quarters?” Scott asked. “I don’t know. We will find out. My suspicion is we are not going to be as efficient. It is going to be harder to get some of the routine bills passed and done on a timely fashion.”

“There is so much of it that will be so different,” Harvey says. “We are meeting in a former Kmart building that was turned into a bank that was turning into a processing center that is turned into the state capitol.”