PORT ANGELES — The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has opened the doors to its new law enforcement justice center, a major step toward increasing and improving the tribe’s self-governance, said the tribe’s CEO, Michael Peters.
The tribe has transformed a World War II-era bunker at 341 Spokwes Road into a modern justice center, which houses the tribe’s law enforcement, emergency management, courts, tribal enrollment and information technology departments.
“This is part of the new beginning for the tribe to fully being able to exercise its self-governance and continuing to strengthen the relationship with the surrounding communities,” Peters said after the grand opening of the building Tuesday afternoon.
The tribe marked the opening of the newly renovated building, which cost about $3.2 million, with a cedar ribbon-cutting, tours and a traditional song led by a man who had been through the tribe’s healing court.
The new justice center is at what is commonly called the “old bunker” and is more than three times the size of the former 3,000-square-foot building at the corner of Dry Creek Road and U.S. Highway 101.
That extra room will allow the tribe to expand its courts and better serve the community, Peters said.
Among the changes the tribe is considering is hiring a full-time judge.
“We’ve run with just a pro tem judge and that’s been working,” Peters said. “But as the government grows and the community grows, we need the court to grow.”
For the first time, the tribe’s judges will also have their own office. The previous justice center was so small, the judges did not have their own space.
Only the first floor was open for tours Tuesday. Peters said work on the justice center’s basement level and second-story floors will continue in additional phases.
Downstairs will be an area where law enforcement can train, both in a classroom setting and through practical exercises.
“The tribe has always had a very strong place with the local jurisdictions, even to the point Homeland Security, Border Patrol and the county would come here to train,” Peters said.
The improvements to the building have been about a year in the making. Conversations started as the tribe started construction on its store on U.S. Highway 101 and Dry Creek Road, he said.
“A couple of us proposed repurposing this building because it wasn’t being used other than for storage,” he said. “We made a pitch to the council that this was a logical place for a justice center.”
The tribal council agreed.
Frances Charles, tribal chairwoman, said anyone who had seen the building before knows how much of an accomplishment the new justice center is.
“Our hands really go up to those who designed it and planned it,” she said. “We’re already looking at some more expansions for offices.”
Russell Hepfer, tribal vice chairman, said it was appropriate to have Elwha River restoration project signage on the wall as people enter the building.
Hepfer also said he was proud the project was able to give two of the tribe’s young men valuable work experience.
“I’m real proud of what our tribe has done,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things here, and we’re just going to keep going.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].