BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The $60 million renovation of the Salem Family and Probate Court building is set to begin next year.
Design plans for the long-stalled project were discussed at a meeting this week between state and local officials.
“The project is absolutely moving forward and going to happen,” said state Rep. John Keenan, who attended the meeting Tuesday at the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center.
The state expects to begin “early construction activity” in March and get into full swing by the fall of 2014, according to a spokesman at the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance.
State officials said they plan to move Probate Court employees over to Shetland Park for a construction project that will take more than two years, according to several people who attended the meeting.
The fate of Probate Court, which is located next to the new state courthouse on Federal Street, is important because it sets off a game of musical chairs involving a state agency and two former and vacant court buildings — the Superior Court/County Commissioners building on Federal Street and the nearby District Court property on Washington Street.
The court properties are linked in several ways, not the least of which is the furnace in Probate Court, which also heats the vacant Superior Court building.
State Sen. Joan Lovely and Keenan have filed legislation to transfer Superior Court and District Court to the Salem Redevelopment Authority, which a few years ago successfully developed another former state property — the old Salem Jail.
However, Secretary of State William Galvin has raised concerns because of his interest in moving the Southern Essex Registry of Deeds to the District Court building or another public space. The registry moved into Shetland Park more than five years ago when construction began on the new courthouse.
“I don’t believe public services like this ... should be in private space,” Galvin said. “It’s very expensive.”
The state pays $645,000 a year in rent at Shetland Park, Galvin said.
Galvin pointed to an agreement reached in 2007 among state and city officials to make every effort to move the registry back to District Court. He wants to stick to that or, if it proves unfeasible, to find another public property.
Although Galvin said he wants to keep the registry in Salem and near Probate Court, he said he would consider moving it to a public building somewhere else in the city or in another community to save the taxpayers money.
“Public space trumps everything,” he said.
Whether District Court is a good site for the registry appears unclear. A state-commissioned study a few years ago raised questions about the cost of renovating that building.
Meanwhile, Keenan and Lovely hope these issues can be resolved soon so their legislation can move forward. Keenan said he believes there would be outside interest in the court buildings from private developers and others if they were turned over to the SRA for redevelopment.
Salem State University has shown some interest in Superior Court, he said.
Keenan said there is a “fair amount” of interest from private developers in the District Court property. “My sense is whoever goes there is going to tear that thing down,” he said.
Lovely noted that this is a good time to try to do something with those buildings. The new courthouse is open, a new commuter rail station is under construction and other developments are waiting in the wings.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.