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Clearing the path for a new Lauderdale County courthouse

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Readers Poll: A new courthouse

What do you think of Lauderdale County’s plan to build a new courthouse at the site of the old Village Fair mall in Meridian?

You voted:

The building had been empty for so long that weeds appeared to sprout from the roof.

A grocery cart filled with trash was parked nearby.

LAUDERDALE COUNTY Clearing the path for a new courthouse

Bill Graham / The Meridian Star

A crew clears away debris from the old Firestone service station near the vacant Village Fair Mall in Meridian on Friday. The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors in June purchased the approximately 39-acre mall property, with plans to demolish the mall and develop the site for a new county courthouse.

Above weathered plywood and a window advertising a 4-wheel brake job for $99.99, you could still make out the word “Firestone.”

Wednesday afternoon, county crews knocked down the former tire service station.

The demolition puts Lauderdale County one step closer to a new courthouse at the site of the old Village Fair Mall, but many of the plans for that project remain unknown.

The path to this point has been a circuitous one, with false starts, environmental concerns and a list of expenses that has grown as the county researched options.  

LAUDERDALE COUNTY Clearing the path for a new courthouse

Bill Graham / The Meridian Star

The vacant Village Fair Mall site was purchased by Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors in June. The county plans to demolish the mall and develop the site for a new county courthouse.

Leaders hope to transform the site of the mall, which closed in 1997, from an eyesore to a welcoming landmark for drivers bound for downtown.

The county purchased the 39-acre property off 22nd Avenue in June for $1.25 million and has begun advertising for bids to remove asbestos from the mall — the last step before it can be demolished.

“We imagine it will take a couple months to abate it, so we’re hoping within four to five months we’ll be able to start tearing that building down,” said Jonathan Wells, the supervisor for District 1.

The county road department is expected to take part in the demolition.

Supervisors have been concerned about unwanted visitors getting hurt on the property and earlier this month, they approved $26,522 for Precision Fence, LLC to build a fence around the site.

A decades-old problem

Less than a mile away sits the current courthouse in downtown Meridian.

A stairwell marked by cracked, chipped paint leads visitors to a courtroom with a stained ceiling.

For decades, county leaders have grappled with what to do with the now 114-year-old building, a subject of scorn by many of the grand juries who have served there.

A March grand jury report said the courthouse was an “embarrassment” and called for air quality, mold and asbestos inspections.

“The Grand Jury requests that the citizens of Lauderdale County contact the Board of Supervisors regarding the progress or lack of progress in making a decision to move all employees out of the courthouse immediately and into adequate working spaces until a decision is made to demolish or renovate the courthouse,” the report said. 

LAUDERDALE COUNTY Clearing the path for a new courthouse

Erin Kelly / The Meridian Star

Peeling paint is seen in one of the rooms of the Lauderdale County Courthouse. 

In the spring of 2018, Pickering Firm, Inc. conducted an asbestos, lead-based paint and indoor air quality/mold investigation at the courthouse.

A certified asbestos inspector and lead risk assessor reported nine asbestos-containing materials and seven lead-based paints.

The firm’s report recommended limiting time in the basement, cleaning the ventilation and removing water-stained ceiling tiles due to mold.

Despite the problems, none of the studies conducted on the building indicated the conditions posed a health hazard, according to Wells.

“There weren’t any immediate issues that the board needed to address,” said County Administrator Chris Lafferty. “Just like every other old building in Mississippi, it’s going to have some asbestos, it’s going to have some lead, it’s going to have some natural mold and mildew that’s just in the air.”

The report was not shared with county employees, but Lafferty said it was not intentionally kept from anyone.

“There was no concern that was brought up in the report that would warrant any mass notification of problems to county employees,” he said. 

“I don’t want to throw past boards under the bus, but…if it would have been taken care of years ago, 30, 40 years ago, who knows how much it would have cost back then compared to what it’s going to cost or what it could cost to fix now,” Wells said.

Looking at options

From December 2016 to October 2018, supervisors authorized more than $200,000 in fees on the courthouse issue.

In addition to that, numbers provided by the county through a public records request show that in the last year, the county paid LPK Architects close to $200,000 for designs and research, including a potential move of county workers to the old federal building and a proposed relocation of the tax collector’s office.

Both ideas were scrapped. 

After months of negotiating on the federal building, “it became apparent that the move wasn’t in the best interest of taxpayers,” Lafferty said.

Asked what he would say to members of the public who feel like thousands have been spent with nothing to show for it, Wells replied, “They’re fixing to see action.”

LAUDERDALE COUNTY Clearing the path for a new courthouse

“I don’t want to throw past boards under the bus, but…if it would have been taken care of years ago, 30, 40 years ago, who knows how much it would have cost back then compared to what it’s going to cost or what it could cost to fix now.”

District 1 Supervisor Jonathan Wells 

Wells pointed to the progress of securing the mall property, the recent move of a county department and the demolition of the Firestone building. 

“It’s just a very expensive project to tackle and we’re just working through it, trying to do what’s best for the Lauderdale County taxpayers,” said District 5 Supervisor Kyle Rutledge. “They’re the ones that are paying for it, so we’re trying to be good stewards of their money.”

The board set a target date of March 1, 2018 to move workers to a space vacated by J.C. Penney, but several county departments decided to stay put, rather than move twice, according to county leaders.

“The board provided an option for them to be moved, everybody out of the courthouse, and the elected officials that live and work and employ people in the courthouse encouraged the board not to do that and basically made the decision not to move their people out of the courthouse,” Lafferty said.

The move to the former J.C. Penney space would have cost well over $400,000, not including rent, utilities, and repairs, he said.

Wells estimated that staying at that location for approximately three years could have cost taxpayers as much as $4 million. 

Last week, the county finished moving the Mississippi State University/4-H Extension Service out of the Raymond P. Davis County Annex Building to the Lauderdale County Agri-Center. 

Records show the total amount for that move will be more than $600,000.

“It was more cost effective to remodel an existing portion of the Ag Center than to build them into our new facility,” Lafferty said. 

Environmental consulting and asbestos abatement planning at the mall site by PPM Consultants, Inc. will cost the county more than $25,000, records show. 

LAUDERDALE COUNTY Clearing the path for a new courthouse

“It’s just a very expensive project to tackle and we’re just working through it, trying to do what’s best for the Lauderdale County taxpayers. They’re the ones that are paying for it, so we’re trying to be good stewards of their money.”

District 5 Supervisor Kyle Rutledge 

A frustrating process

Local attorney and Meridian Municipal Court Judge Robbie Jones has spent more than 40 years practicing law in the courthouse.

“It’s just one of those things that’s talked about. The grand juries come in, condemn it from a physical appearance standpoint, recommend…something be done, and it just goes to the next set of politicians,” he said. “I’m glad to see somebody finally grab it by the horns and try to deal with it.”

It has been a frustrating process – spending more time and money as plans have changed – said Wells, who has been in office since 2016.

“We had good plans to go to (J.C.) Penney’s for temporary and then that got put on hold. We had good plans to send (Tax Collector) Doris Spidle into the Hooper’s building, but once the mall property price got to a spot where we were comfortable, well that got stopped,” he said. “And it’s not that we did it on purpose or we were just willfully wanting to throw money around, but it’s just the circumstance of our target kind of kept moving.”

If there’s any upside to the delays, it’s that the county was able to get the best price on the mall property, Wells said.

What it will look like and who will build it isn’t clear yet.

County leaders said LPK Architects will be responsible for the new courthouse design and W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company will handle cost management for the project.

The board still has to determine the courthouse complex’s layout and exact location on the property and put out a request for bids for a construction contractor. 

That request won’t happen until the design phase is complete, according to Lafferty.

Supervisors don’t plan to use the entire mall site for the county, and want to put some of the land back on the tax rolls.

“It’s 39 acres down there,” said District 2 Supervisor Wayman Newell. “We can sell some property to some investors that want it or some individuals that want to put a business down there and so forth and we can recoup money for what we paid for it.”

The two biggest questions remain – when will the courthouse be ready and how much will it cost?

Wells gave a rough estimate of $35 million and said he expected the funds would likely come, in part, from bonds. 

New market tax credits and sales to private investors could help with the courthouse project cost, according to Lafferty. 

It’s not clear if a tax increase would be required to fund it.

Once the new facility is ready, employees from all courts and county administrative offices will move from the current courthouse and the nearby annex building. 

Then, the board would like to put the annex building up for sale, Wells said.

Until the design phase is complete, the county won’t know exactly where all of the offices will end up, according to Lafferty.  

Supervisors have offered several ideas for the existing courthouse, from a museum for G.V. ‘Sonny’ Montgomery to a space for the Lauderdale County Archives and Veterans Service Office. 

Whatever goes in the building, county leaders promise they won’t abandon it.

“We’re going to take care of it,” Wells said. “In the future, we’ll address some of those structural problems and work with Archives and History,” Wells said.

While no formal public comment period for the new courthouse project has been announced, Wells said citizens can provide the board with their input.

“Our constituents are always welcome to reach out to us with ideas because we do want to see that area thrive. We want to see our investment not just make tax dollars back, but to continue to generate revenue for years to come,” Wells said.

The county jail is expected to stay where it is for now, next to the courthouse.

“There’s no way that we can bite all that off at the same time,” Wells said. “The focus is getting our new courthouse built, getting our people out,” he said.

Circuit Clerk Donna Jill Johnson, who has spent 28 years in the courthouse, said employees are excited about the move, whenever that may be.

“If it takes two, three, four years, we’re fine with it, as long as it’s done right,” she said. “This is the way of the future. Welcome to Meridian and welcome to Lauderdale County, coming off the interstate…all the things that are supposed to be done for 22nd Avenue, it’s just a win-win and it’s going to be a win-win for the public because we’ll all be under one roof.”

The county plans to hold an official courthouse project announcement at the site of the old mall at 8 a.m. on Oct. 31. 

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