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LAUDERDALE COUNTY COURTHOUSE CONUNDRUM

Supervisors wrangle with decaying building

  • 16 min to read

Paint peeling from the walls.

Black mold in the chancery clerk's office.

Exposed wires in the tax assessor's office.

Plaster falling from the ceiling of the main courtroom.

Welcome to the aged and cramped Lauderdale County Courthouse.

A short walk through reveals many of the problems with the aging building.

There are bolted windows in the grand jury room, water damage on photos and offensive odors in the county courtroom. Some hallways are filled with files in storage, and courthouse workers describe problems with their workplace: water leaks and cramped working conditions; health problems from mold.

Those are just a few of the issues plaguing the historic building, the albatross that has hung over the county for at least four decades as supervisors take a cautious approach in deciding the future of the aging structure.

The courthouse was built in 1905, and the third floor and jail were added during the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project.

In 1977, a study was commissioned to look at renovating the building, according to District 4 Supervisor Joe Norwood. Some $1.8 million was set aside for the renovation, but nothing was done in the way of improving the courthouse.

"Forty years later, we're now talking $16-17 million for renovation," Norwood said. "That should tell you something that if you don't do it now, 20 years down the road that $16-$17 million will probably be $30-$40 million."

The courthouse question is at the forefront once again. Supervisors have $7.8 million frozen to use from a $14 million bond issue passed in 2013. About $5 million was recently taken out for roads and bridges.

About $3.8 million of the $14 million was proposed for a 32,000-square-foot sports complex at Highland Park that would house a four-court gymnasium with bleachers. Approximately $3.5 million of the money was to go to the county-owned fields of the West Lauderdale Youth Association and $2.5 million to the county-owned Clarkdale Community Recreation Association park construction. The remaining $4.2 million was meant to fund a partial renovation of the courthouse.

Among county supervisors, there's no consensus on how to tackle the courthouse conundrum, which involves either renovating the existing structure or moving operations elsewhere.

Moving the courthouse to the old Village Fair Mall site seems to have the most support from board members, but environmental concerns have slowed the process. District 5 Supervisor Kyle Rutledge suggested supervisors probably won't make a decision on what to do until the end of the 2019 term. District 2 Supervisor Wayman Newell said he wants to examine as much information as possible before he renders a decision on what to do.

ARCHITECT'S REPORT

Last May, supervisors hired noted Eupora architect Belinda Stewart to develop a plan on whether to renovate the cramped structure or build elsewhere. She recently delivered the final draft in a 66-page study, which costs the county about $75,000.

The top five options range in price from $30 million to more than $46 million.

Stewart's firm specializes in restoring aged buildings and been in business more than 20 years, in which time it's won more than 40 design awards. Some of its notable redesign projects include Bay St. Louis City Hall and the restorations of courthouses in Tallahatchie, Yalobusha and Pontotoc Counties. The county paid Stewart approximately $75,000 for the study.

Lauderdale County Facilities Study for the Lauderdale County Courthouse prepared by Belinda Stewart Architects.

Four scenarios from the study involve renovating the existing courthouse, while two center around the Village Fair Mall site.

The first option includes renovating the courthouse and Lamar Annex and the construction of a new addition. This option would cost $38.05 million. A second option, estimated to cost $38.6 million, involves a detached chancery addition built into existing building space and the relocation of the county jail.

A third option, estimated to cost a total of $47.8 million ($31.3 million in public funds and about $16.5 million in private money), envisions the Lamar Annex being sold for private reuse, and new construction of two-story addition to other county-owned buildings. The jail would be relocated.

The fourth option is similar to the third scenario except the federal courthouse building would be used. The estimated cost is $44.87 million, with the county investing $28.37 million in renovation, restoration, and new construction at its downtown location. The private sector would possibly invest another $16.5 million in rehabilitation and restoration of the Lamar Hotel facility.

Another option consolidates the county courts and offices into five buildings with about 106,000 square feet at the former Village Fair Mall site. Costs associated with development of the mall site, along with rehabilitation costs for the courthouse, are estimated at $40.25 million. There would also be $16.5 million in private investment in rehabilitation and restoration of the Lamar Hotel building. Together, public and private investment would total $56.75 million.

A second mall option allows for private redevelopment of a portion of the mall site, along with county government uses. County construction costs in this scenario would total $46.75 million, which includes $6 million for partial restoration of the courthouse to house the county archives.

'UNRESPECTABLE'

For the last decade or so, grand jury after grand jury has toured the courthouse, all reaching the same conclusion: that the building is in dire need of repair.

The most recent grand jury report, delivered in January, called the facility "unrespectable."

Grand jury report

The report stated "jurors were horrified by the smell and odors in the courthouse. One of the jurors had trouble with her allergies due to the mold and dust…a light is about to fall in the big courtroom. The courtrooms are in horrible shape. The restrooms are in horrible shape. The plumbing is horrible…the building is unrespectable….there needs to be a plan for upgrades to meet needs of the courthouse workers.”

The report said jurors also reported seeing some broken windows at the jail and recommended upgrades to its heating and air systems. It said sheriff’s department investigators also need more space to work.

A 2013 report included much of the same. In August 2013, jurors said the building was in such bad shape that it should be bulldozed. The next month, jurors called conditions in parts of the courthouse “deplorable.”

In late 2015, Bill Waller, the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, called the building "the worst courthouse in the state," after touring the historic building.

"Think of a beautiful courthouse, like in Lafayette County. When it was built in the 1830s, there were three stores, a couple of saloons and 400 people living there,” Waller said. “It was a huge investment for the county. They understood the importance of the courthouse. It symbolizes the rule of law.”

SOME ISSUES ADDRESSED

Some complaints about the courthouse have been addressed over the years.

The heat and air conditioning systems were replaced two years ago, according to District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell.

Grand jury reports go through Mitchell, whose 10th Circuit includes Clarke, Kemper, Lauderdale and Wayne counties.

Lauderdale County Grand Jury Reports, July 31, 2016-Sept. 1, 2016, provided by Lauderdale County Citizens for Responsible Governance.

Mitchell said Lauderdale County is in dire need of an improved facility.

"Of my four counties, Lauderdale County is the biggest and we have, by far, the worst courthouse," Mitchell said. "The Kemper County Courthouse is in a single block you see when you enter DeKalb. It's beautiful. Clarke County built an entire wing on the back of existing courthouse and built a new courtroom in the part they added," Mitchell said, while sitting in his cramped courthouse office. "They refurbished the old courtroom and it's like a courtroom you see in a movie. It's a great place to try a lawsuit. Wayne County built a new jail and new courtroom, so we have two circuit courts there."

"All of these things have taken place since I became DA, and I've been here for 30 years," Mitchell added. "In Meridian, nothing has happened."

Mitchell said he heard Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors President Josh Todd's recent interview on a local television station concerning the board's impending decision regarding the courthouse.

"I appreciate the supervisors' effort and I think they are sincere and want to get something done about the courthouse," Mitchell added. "My preference would be to refurbish this courthouse rather than moving it because I think it is a beautiful building and has a lot of history behind it."

Mitchell said the focus of the grand jury changed recently.

"For about 10 years, the grand jury was concerned with the Juvenile Center on 20th Street, which is closed now. At some point about 10 years ago, the grand jury stopped visiting the Juvenile Center and started concentrating on the courthouse," Mitchell said. "If the old jail was taken off the roof and the outside was cleaned up and inside was refurbished, I think it would be a showcase of the county like Kemper County's courthouse is."

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Bittick said the courthouse is nothing like anywhere else he has worked.

"I've practiced in several locations in this state and this one is by far the most dilapidated courthouse of them all," he said.

WHAT THE SUPERVISORS SAY

Rutledge

Rutledge

District 5 Supervisor Kyle Rutledge

Question: How committed are you to resolving the courthouse issue?

Answer: "When I sought re-election, the courthouse was a top priority. It's been patched all these years. It's a top priority for the entire Board."

Q: What is your timeline for making a decision?

A: "By the end of this term we at least need to have the process started. There is no way to have it completed by the time the term ends (at the end of 2019)."

Q: Which recommendation or course of action do you favor?

A: "Something has got to be done. We're struggling with funding to pay for it in the most efficient way because we're dealing with taxpayer money. I have not made a decision on which recommendation I favor. We want to make sure we have a good working environment for all courthouse employees."

Q: Should the county use the remaining $7.8 million of bond money on the project?

A: "I don't think that will quite cover it. We took out $5 million for paving. We have to come up with a plan and a way to finance it. Maybe we can have a public meeting and get input as to whether we renovate or move. It's going to affect Lauderdale County for a long time and we need to make the best decision we can."

Newell

Newell

District 2 Supervisor Wayman Newell

Question: How committed are you to resolving the courthouse issue?

Answer: "Until I see all the paperwork, I'll then decide what I would like to do."

Q: What is your timeline for making a decision?

A: "I hope we as a board can make a decision before this year is out. First, you've got to make a decision. I'm ready to make a decision. I'm waiting for all the studies to be done. When they are complete, I'll be ready to make a decision. I've said all along that I would like to see something new for the employees, judges and citizens."

Q: Which recommendation or course of action do you favor?

A: "I would like to see everything in one building. I'm not in favor of two floors, but one floor. When you have two floors you have water leaks with bathroom issues and roof issues with multiple floors. I want to see all the paperwork on all the scenarios before I make a final decision."

Q: Should the county us the remaining $7.8 million of bond money on the project?

A: "I think we should use it for the courthouse, roads and bridges. I look forward to getting a decision made in the near future."

Norwood

Norwood

District 4 Supervisor Joe Norwood

Question: How committed are you to resolving the courthouse issue?

Answer: "I'm very committed to resolving the courthouse issue. We will select what we're going to do from all the data we have and will come up with a plan. I don't want to vote on something of this magnitude until we have every piece of information in making this decision."

Q: What is your timeline for making a decision?

A: "I don't have a timeline because we didn't get to this point overnight. There is a lot of legwork we still need to do. We've got to renovate something or build something to take the people out of the courthouse so we can build or renovate before we can do anything. We need three times the space the courthouse has."

Q: Which recommendation or course of action do you favor?

A:  "There are so many pieces to this puzzle. I haven't chosen what direction I want to go in yet. If we choose the Village Fair Mall site, we've got to make sure any environmental issues are ruled out. The monster in the room is people are more interested in doing something with the jail."

Q: Should the county use the remaining $7.8 million of bond money on the project?

A: "I would like to see the remaining bond money used for its intended purpose, that is to use $3.5 million to complete a recreation property at Highland Park."

Todd

Todd

District 3 Supervisor, Board President Josh Todd

Question: How committed are you to resolving the courthouse issue?

Answer:  "Of course I'm committed. I don't know of any supervisor who is not committed."

Q: What is your timeline for making a decision?

A: "Personally, I would like to see something happen within two years."

Q: Which recommendation or course of action do you favor?

A: "I favor the old Village Fair Mall property because it's not a piece of property that we can outgrow in 10 or 20 years. It's a property that we can grow with. It has ample amount of parking and buildings and there is enough room for expansion of buildings."

Q: Should the county use the remaining $7.8 million of bond money on the project?

A: "The $7.8 million won't come close to what we have to do. We still have roads and bridges to maintain, which at the beginning of every term, the board does a $10 million bond for. We did not do that this term. I feel the remainder of the $7.8 million bond money will go to roads and bridges and the Village Fair Mall property if the Board chooses to and a small part to renovating the courthouse. Both are great and both meet our needs as far as building space. A need for us is parking and accessibility to the building."

Wells

Wells

District 1 Supervisor Jonathan Wells

Question: How committed are you to resolving the courthouse issue?

Answer: "I'm 100 percent committed. The can has been kicked down the road for long enough. The longer we wait the more it will cost. If we wait, it will cost our children and grandchildren even more."

Q: What is your timeline for making a decision?

A: "There is not a specific date, but it is about collecting enough information to make a final decision."

Q: Which recommendation or course of action do you favor?

A: "At this point, I can't say where we're going to go, whether it's the old Village Fair Mall or the current location. That all goes back to collecting more information. I'm not afraid to say I have questions about the figures we were given in Ms. Stewart's study. I have a hard time believing it would be more expensive to build new versus remodeling a building built in 1905 that is on the Historical Registry. Does that mean the mall is my choice? No, because we're still collecting information, which includes information on Class 1 and Class 2 environmental studies from DEQ about the Village Fair Mall.

"I would like to see the jail removed, but when we can do that I can't answer. We're talking about the cost of a courthouse. If we do remodel the courthouse, we would have to have a place to house employees. That would be a logistical challenge.

"I don't see any other option than the Village Fair Mall and/or current courthouse. I'm just one of five people. If we go to the Village Fair Mall, the courthouse is still our building. We can't let it waste away."

Q: Should the county use the remaining $7.8 million of bond money on the project?

A: "We need to spend a majority of the money on this project, but we still have other projects to be concerned about. We didn't do a new $10 million road bond at the beginning of the new term. If we don't use the $7.8 million for road money, what are we going to use for roads."

SIX OPTIONS

Scenario A1.0 Renovated/Restored Courthouse, Lamar Annex

Lauderdale County Courthouse

Lauderdale County Courthouse

In Scenario A-1.0, the existing 63,652 square-foot Courthouse and Lamar Annex are renovated and restored. There is also construction of a new addition, including new courtroom and Chancery Court facilities, with secure internal parking included. The addition would include an attached 22,788 square-foot Chancery Court along with 2,100 square feet for security and egress as well as 12,400 square feet in internal parking. The existing county jail would remain at its existing site.

Price: $37.95 million.

Pros:

• Strengthens downtown by keeping county functions downtown.

• Provides additional parking less than 250 feet from the courthouse.

• Additions could be constructed first to allow phasing of Courthouse restoration.

• Portions of Annex can be used for phasing during construction.

• Courthouse addition is connected to existing, allowing for increased accessibility.

• Fully restores the existing building – improving security, code issues, etc.

• Historic tax credit potential if private partnership.

Cons:

• Jail remains in downtown and is inadequate.

• Annex building is not efficient for county’s needs.

• One story addition will not be prominent beside courthouse.

Scenario A2.0 Renovated/Restored Courthouse, Lamar Annex

There is only some slight variation between Scenario A-1.0 and A-2.0. In Scenario A-2.0, there would be a somewhat different configuration of space, with a detached chancery addition built into existing building space. The relocation of the county jail allows for construction of a new parking facility and public space, adding amenity value to the downtown area and for use by county employees.

Price: $37.27 million.

Pros:

• Strengthens downtown by keeping county functions downtown.

• Provides additional parking directly across from the courthouse/addition.

• Additions could be constructed first to allow phasing of courthouse restoration.

• Portions of Annex can be used for phasing during construction.

• Jail is moved out of downtown, freeing up space for parking and green space.

Cons:

• The chancery addition is separated from the remainder of the courthouse. 

• Annex building is not efficient for county’s needs.

Scenario A3.0 Renovated Courthouse, New Construction

Scenario A-3.0 envisions the Lamar Annex being sold for private reuse, and new construction of two-story addition to other county-owned buildings to accommodate growth as well as offices that were otherwise located in the Annex. There would also be secured parking for staff and judges. As noted above, the private sector would purchase, renovate and restore the Lamar Annex (Hotel). The jail would be relocated, which would free up space to accommodate surface parking for the Lamar Hotel property.

Price: $30.9 million. 

Pros:

• All county departments are in connected structures.

• Strengthens downtown by keeping county functions downtown.

• Provides additional parking directly across from the courthouse

• Additions could be constructed first to allow phasing of courthouse restoration

• Portions of Annex can be used for phasing during construction.

• Jail is moved out of downtown, providing support space for the Annex to make it feasible for private development and space for parking support to the courthouse/additions.

• Annex turned to private development as housing and would provide economic impact on tax roles and on downtown development.

• Cost savings because Annex is not included.

Cons:

• Does not include the development of the mall site

Scenario A4.0 Renovated Courthouse, Federal Building, New Construction

Federal courthouse

The federal courthouse in Meridian.

Scenario A-4.0 is similar to the A-3.0 except for a slightly different configuration within the county buildings. More offices are accommodated within existing buildings rather than through a new addition. The federal courthouse building is purchased to accommodate space as necessary. The county would invest $28.37 million in renovation, restoration, and new construction at its downtown location. The private sector would possibly invest another $16.50 million in rehabilitation and restoration of the Lamar Hotel facility. 

Cost: $44.87 million

Pros

–Federal courthouse is well maintained, well-built Structure and could meet County’s needs

- Strengthens downtown by keeping county functions downtown

- Provides more parking adjacent to both courthouses

- Portions of Annex can be used for Phasing during Construction

Cons:

- Uncertainty on purchase arrangements and timing

- Separates some county departments

Scenario B1.0 New construction at Village Fair Mall site

Village Fair Mall site

Village Fair Mall site

Scenario B-1.0 consolidates the county courts and offices into five buildings with about 106,000-square feet at the former Village Fair Mall site. Surface parking would be accommodated on site. Parks or open space would be created adjacent to the new county facilities on excess land that was formerly used as surface parking for the mall. Such open space can become an amenity for the community as well as for county workers and those visiting the county facilities. However, the economic impact of such public space was not tested as part of this analysis.

Price: $43.65 million.

Pros:

• All county departments are in connected structures.

• Additional space for future growth and private development.

• Private development portion provides additional tax revenue and spin-off potential.

• More visible construction on north side of site.

• Gateway site to downtown.

Cons:

• Cost of site development and basic work needed to attract private development.

• Negative impact on downtown.

• Official FEMA flood zone – mitigation required.

• Unknown extent of environmental issues.

• Jail remains in place downtown.

 Scenario B2.0 New construction at Village Fair Mall site

Scenario B-2.0 is similar to B-1.0 except that the program allows for private redevelopment of a portion of the mall site, along with county government uses. By allowing private development, the scenario negates many of the impacts generated by the loss of private redevelopment potential in Scenario B-1.0. In Scenario B-2.0, it is assumed that commercial development up to 175,000-square feet would be accommodated on site. Again, no market analysis has been conducted to forecast market potentials or test this number in the market. Nevertheless, this amount of commercial development is logical and relatively conservative. It should be noted that some of the positive impacts of mall site redevelopment could potentially occur without county facilities being located on the mall site, but the presence of the county facilities and the county’s financial investment in enhancing and preparing the site (including environmental remediation, establishment of an office node, and creation of developable pad sites) would help leverage private development. It is logical that the County’s investment in infrastructure improvements, master planning, and creation of pad sites can speed recruitment of commercial uses to the property.

Price: $46.75 million.

Pros:

• All county departments are in connected structures.

• Additional space for future growth and private development.

• Private Development portion provides additional tax revenue and spin-off potential.

• More visible construction on north side of site.

• Gateway site to downtown.

Cons:

• Cost of site development and basic work needed to attract private development.

• Negative impact on downtown.

• Official FEMA flood zone – mitigation required.

• Unknown extent of environmental issues.

• Potential competition with existing owner / site acquisition cost.

Proposed timeline for courthouse project implementation

A1 – Courthouse restored with 1-story addition / Annex renovated / Jail stays in place.

2017 – Planning / Design / Funds in place.

2017/2018 – Construct additions.

2017/2019 – Phase restoration of Annex.

2017/2019 – Phase departments through portions of the Annex as needed.

2017/2019 – Likely will need rental space for some relocation (Federal Courthouse ideal).

2017 – Phase one of Courthouse – exterior and limited interior.

2018 – Phase two of Courthouse.

2019 – Final phase of Courthouse.

A2 – Courthouse restored with Security addition / Chancery addition / Annex renovated / Jail relocates out of downtown.

2017 – Planning / Design / Funds in place.

2017/2019 – Plan / Design / Construct new jail.

2017/2018 – Construct Chancery addition and Security addition at Courthouse.

2017/2019 – Phase departments through portions of the Annex as needed.

2018 – Move chancery into addition.

2017 – Phase one of Courthouse – exterior and limited interior.

2018 – Phase two of Courthouse – portion of interior.

2019 – Final phase of Courthouse.

2019/2020 – Demolish jail and develop parking and green space.

2019/2020 – Vacate Annex and make available for private development.

A3 – Courthouse restored with 2-story additions / Annex vacated / Jail relocated.

2017 – Planning / Design / Funds in place.

2017/2019 – Plan / Design / Construct new jail.

2017/2018 – Construct additions.

2017/2019 – Phase departments through portions of the Annex as needed.

2018 – Move into addition.

2017 – Phase one of courthouse – exterior and limited interior.

2018 – Phase two of Courthouse – portion of interior.

2019 – Final phase of Courthouse.

2019/2020 – Demolish jail and develop parking and green space.

2019/2020 – Vacate Annex and make available for private development.

A4 – Courthouse restored with security addition, Federal Courthouse purchased/modified / Annex to private use / Jail relocated.

2017 – Planning / Design / Funds in place.

2017/2019 – Plan / Design / Construct new jail.

2017 – Purchase Federal Courthouse.

2017 - Phase one of Courthouse – exterior and limited interior.

2018 – Construct security addition.

2017/2019 – Phase departments through portions of the Annex as needed.

2018 – Modifications to Federal Courthouse for county use / new entrance.

2018 – Move into Federal Courthouse.

2017 –2018 – Phase two of Courthouse – portion of interior.

2019 – Final phase of Courthouse.

2019/2020 – Demolish jail and develop parking and green space.

2019/2020 – Vacate Annex and make available for private development.

B1 – Mall site – county development only.

2017 – Planning / Design / Funds in place.

2017/2019 – Plan / Design / Construct new jail.

2017 – Purchase mall site / demolish mall / site development.

2018-2019 – Construct new county facility.

2019 – Move into new facility on mall site.

2019 – Vacate Courthouse, conduct limited renovations.

2020 – Move archives, extension (and possibly Justice Court) into historic Courthouse.

2019/2020 – Demolish jail.

2020 – Vacate Annex and make available for private development.

SOURCE: Lauderdale County Facilities Study by Belinda Stewart Architects.

 

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