- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 8, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Top Wyoming officials expressed concern about the slow pace of planning for the $300-million renovation of the state capitol in Cheyenne. Following a late-night, closed session on Tuesday, officials said they may explore retaining a representative to oversee the project more closely.

Gov. Matt Mead and legislative leaders met as the Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group. They capped the tense, nearly seven-hour meeting with a closed session that lasted past 10 p.m.

Representatives of the project’s architects and contractor testified they expect to have substantial completion of working drawings completed in October and final, guaranteed maximum price for the project completed by late fall. Those dates are more than two months behind estimates the oversight group heard from them only last month.

Some state workers already have moved out of the Capitol in anticipation of work starting this fall. And the state already has leased and purchased office space around Cheyenne to accommodate elected officials and the Legislature during the promised three-year construction phase.

The historic Capitol was built in stages starting over 100 years ago. Many of its rooms subsequently have been retrofitted with low-hanging acoustic ceiling tiles. In addition to addressing fire safety and other modernization requirements, the restoration project also calls for a major renovation of the neighboring Herschler Building, which houses state workers.

Members of the oversight group bristled Tuesday when architect Tom Whetstone told them he needed direction on issues including how to accommodate ventilation systems in the Capitol’s ground floor. He proposed lowering the ceilings on some rooms to house duct work.

Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said the Legislature’s basic intent in the renovation project has been to restore the Capitol to its original form. He said if anyone was talking about putting duct work in the rooms, lawmakers should have been informed about it long ago.

“I’m disappointed we’re finding this out now, quite frankly,” Bebout said. “And I’ve even more concern what else is out there we’ll be finding out about later.”

Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said lawmakers had gradually increased funding for the restoration project as they were assured that the end result would make Wyoming’s Capitol compare favorably with other historic, restored capitols around the country. He said he’s concerned at the current status of planning.

“We have key construction elements and architectural elements that are not resolved,” Nicholas said. “When are the solutions going to be come up with?”

Whetstone and Mike O’Donnell, a lawyer for the state who’s been serving as a project coordinator, told lawmakers that the project’s final design would only emerge as a result of a series of design decisions that the group itself needed to make.

“This is the kind of incremental decision-making that leads to a full project,” Whetstone said.

Mead also said he was getting very uncomfortable with the status of the planning process this late in the project.

“I’m at a point where, do we pare down the project?” Mead said. “Do we go back to fire protection, and elevators and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance?”

Following the closed meeting, several group members said they had made no final decisions in private on how to proceed. They disbanded without making any formal statement on their progress.

Nicholas said after the meeting he believes the oversight group needs to assess whether it needs to retain a project manager, or owner’s representative, to manage the project.

Nicholas said he’s concerned that the architect is struggling now to get the design done on time and said it’s not clear whether the state can expect to get all the plans done even by the new deadlines announced Tuesday.

“I think we need to take a deep breath,” Nicholas said. He said the oversight group needs to make sure all elements of the project fully considered before they commit the state to start construction.

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