In 2008 voters gave the county permission to spend $17 million to renovate and expand the Pickens County Courthouse by way of a one-cent sales tax.
Now it’s 2011 and most Pickens residents, especially those who have been inside the courthouse, have likely noticed that work has yet to begin on the outdated, dilapidated building.
While Commissioner Robert Jones says he has no estimate for when construction will start, he spoke to the Progress about what’s going on behind the scenes and why he chose to construct the SPLOST-approved Pickens County Community Center first, a building which cannot be funded with SPLOST money until renovations on the courthouse are completed first.
The courthouse is a SPLOST Tier I project, while the community center, which falls under the recreation heading, is a Tier II project. By state regulation, all SPLOST projects must be funded in order.
Above, a window in the courthouse is sealed with clear tape to cover cracks in the glass and damage with the frame.
The commissioner chose to sidestep the SPLOST-funding method by borrowing $3 million from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia to build the community center at Roper Park with plans of paying the loan back when the SPLOST money becomes available.
Jones has said, however, that he does not plan to spend the entire $3 million borrowed on the project.
“I wish I would have had the community center already done because it would have saved our behinds this weekend,” Jones said of the new gymnasium now under construction at Roper Park. When completed the gym will act as the county’s only federally-approved emergency shelter.
“If we would have had one, we could have used that building for a federal shelter [during the snowstorm],” Jones said. “That’s what it’s being designed for.”
Jones said he also opted to build the gymnasium before constructing the courthouse in response to a growing need in the Pickens County Recreation Department for gym space and to provide Pickens children with a positive environment to spend their free time.
“With the recreation department growing like it’s doing and trying to help get the kids off the street,” Jones said, “with the school system limited to how the county can use their buildings, it’s kind of put me in a situation to where I’ve got to do something for the children here in Pickens County.
“Commissioners over the last 25 years have promised the children of this county that they would have a place where they could have sports and have big community rooms, have extra classrooms for adults and an inside walking area for the adults.
“When are we going to do it?” he asked. “Now’s the time. I’ll probably wind up taking some flack over it, but I have accomplished a lot over these six years, and this has been one more item that Pickens County needs, in my opinion, to get done. With the school system getting filled up, we don’t have the availability to use the gyms like we could years ago.”
The county now rents or leases four school gymnasiums to use for Pickens County Recreation Department games, including Jasper Elementary, Harmony Elementary, Hill City Elementary and Pickens County Middle.
Jones says he plans to continue leasing the old gymnasium at Jasper Elementary School, and he expects that having two high-school regulation basketball courts in the community center will enable the county to meet most of the recreation department’s needs.
“It’s going to take away the majority of that need [to rent from the schools],” he said. “We’ve got two complete gyms. We’ll be able to have four practices a night in that building or we can have two full games going on at the same time.”
But despite the community center being constructed out of turn, the commissioner says he is continuing to make moves to get the courthouse project off the ground.
The Pickens County Courthouse Advisory Commission (Pickens CAC) was organized by the Pickens County Grand Jury following the 2008 SPLOST approval. The Advisory Commission was to assist Jones with planning, development and parking issues related to the courthouse. The group eventually stopped meeting because, “the work they had been assigned to do was over,” Jones said.
The commissioner also slowed courthouse planning at one point when parking became a problem issue, Jones added.
“We slowed because the recommendation from the grand jury was the whole issue with parking. We had to stop until we could figure out the parking,” he said.
“Back when the courthouse issue got passed and we started putting plans together after the SPLOST got through, I had requested that the grand jury get involved to oversee the plans at that time and to see if they had another recommendation before we started breaking ground or spending money,” Jones said. “I don’t like to have to redo anything.”
Jones said the grand jury suggested that the county’s initial plans for constructing a parking deck at the rear of the courthouse would not be sufficient for the amount of additional parking needed.
In May of 2010 the county purchased two parcels of land (approximately 4.5 acres) to extend parking and hopefully solve the issue. The two lots located behind Piggly Wiggly were purchased for $477,976.
A lighted walkway will eventually cross the railroad tracks and extend up Court Street, connecting the parking lot at Pioneer Road and the courthouse on Main Street.
Above, a window in the courthouse with cracked plaster around the frame.
“Parking has always been an issue around town and around the courthouse,” Jones said. He is now working with architect assistant Tom Eubanks and Boutwell Engineering to design and construct the parking area and walkway.
Jones is also currently working with the Georgia Northeastern Railroad to gain right-of-way access across the railroad track and is trying to nail down permitting for construction of the parking site.
“All that is starting to click,” Jones said.
He said if all goes as planned, ground will be broken on the parking area no later than April of this year.
“This winter has really messed us up on the timeline,” Jones said. “We were hoping we were going to have a dry winter. Cold we can deal with. The wetness is what’s killing us. So we’re looking around April to get started. If we can get started earlier we will, but everything’s hinging on the weather.”
Jones said the parking area will be used as a staging area for heavy equipment needed to renovate the courthouse and will be graded but not paved, curbed, or lighted until courthouse construction is complete.
“I don’t want to bring everything into town and shut downtown down with all that equipment,” Jones said. “I want to try to keep downtown as clean as possible during this construction.”
The county has also recently put out advertisements for a construction manager at-risk to oversee the project as designed by architect Bruce Jennings.
The winning bidder will be a bonded individual or company able to give the county a guaranteed maximum price for the entire project.
“That way there’s no surprise,” Jones said. “I don’t, being a taxpayer, I don’t like surprises. You hire a construction manager at-risk to oversee the architect to be sure he’s not putting in things that the owner, who is the county, does not want in there. An architect works on the basis that the more he puts in there, the more money he’s going to make, because he works on a percentage basis.
“[Using a construction manager at-risk] is how other counties have operated, and that’s how the school board has operated,” he said.
Above, exposed wiring in a hallway in the courthouse. Not pictured is the standing water in the basement level of the courthouse, that appeared to result from the constant condensation dripping from wide areas of the ceiling.
Jones expects the county will select a winning bidder in the next few months and said after the selection is made he will have a better idea about project cost and the building renovation timeline though he did estimate the renovation could take anywhere from 18 months to two years.
“I don’t want to give anybody wrong dates,” Jones said regarding a construction start date for the courthouse, “and we’ll know more about the overall cost when we can get a construction manager on board and we can review the architect’s plans.”
Again, voters earmarked $17 million for the courthouse and parking renovation, not including the $2.7 million tagged for “debt service” on the project. Now Jones says he is going to complete the courthouse and parking for ten to twelve million dollars.
“Yeah, I’ve got $17 million I can spend on the courthouse, but if you can do one for $10 million, why spend the $17 million?” he asked. “You might could do like Gilmer County did and spend $34 million, and they’re not collecting all that [in sales tax]. I’m looking at an overall project at about 10 to 12 million.
“If you are able to pull this thing off and build this thing for $10 million, but remember then you’ve got to furnish the thing, you’ve got to have filing cabinets. A lot of this stuff in this old building you can’t use back. As you know, it’s really a dilapidated building.”
Jones says he is also now working with the architect on office space allocations in the courthouse design and is currently searching for buildings that will hold court offices displaced during the construction period.
“The space allocation is how much room the probate needs in this new building, how much room the magistrate court needs,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to figure all that out so we don’t leave anyone out. We need enough space to last us for years to come.”
Jones also spoke about court offices that will need to be relocated during construction, including the magistrate’s office, the probate office, the district attorney’s office and the probation office.
“Those four entities have to be moved, so we have to find temporary housing for them,” Jones said. But not too long ago the county purchased the building beside the Pickens County Administration Building for just that purpose.
When asked why that building is no longer going to be used to temporarily house displaced offices, Jones said, “We were going to do that, and we had some issues with it, plus the sheriff’s department was needing it for their [Criminal Investigation Department]. The [Veteran’s Affairs office] is going to be over there, too.”
Another state office for children and parents will also store their records in the same building.
“We have got other areas that we’re looking at,” Jones said. “We’re not just out here in the cold. We’ve got two or three ideas, either leasing a building around town…and we’re also looking at [the Pickens County Administration Building] here that the county taxpayers already own.”
Jones did note that the courthouse annex building located directly behind the courthouse will remain operational throughout the courthouse renovation.
“We have already got two courthouses in that annex, and the clerk of court does not have to move. They will stay where they’re at,” Jones said. “Once the courthouse is finished, that building will go away.”
Jones said the new section of the courthouse will extend to within three feet of the wall of the annex building. The basement of the annex building will become underground parking for judges and inmate transport.
“The back leg [of the current courthouse] will go away,” Jones said. “It will have four levels on the new portion of the building including underground parking. “
Jones said the exterior of the courthouse’s front will remain very similar to its current appearance. “Outside it’s going to look pretty much like it is,” he said, “but cleaned up, new windows, more energy efficient. Behind it I don’t want to build something that’s going to take away from the original courthouse. We’ve got to make everything look consistent.”