Proposed Bibb courthouse location moves it to other end of downtown

A year and a half after Bibb County’s Superior Court judges ordered county commissioners to build a new courthouse, county officials unveiled a proposed site Wednesday near the jail in downtown Macon.

After discussing the new courthouse with Mercer University officials earlier in the day, Commissioner Elmo Richardson announced the proposed site at a NewTown Macon board meeting Wednesday afternoon. He said county officials hope to build public support for a new courthouse, which a court order says must be open by July 1, 2012.

Richardson told NewTown board members the county has been looking at downtown locations for the past eight months. The proposed site, two city blocks bounded by Second and Third streets and Oglethorpe and Hawthorne streets, would be advantageous for several reasons, said Richardson, who made the presentation with Commission Chairman Sam Hart, and project consultant and former NewTown CEO Conie Mac Darnell.

The proposed site meets several of the commission’s prerequisites, including keeping the courthouse downtown and safety issues.

“Safety has got to be a big issue,” Richardson said. “(Sheriff Jerry Modena) has said several times we’re fortunate that we’ve never had a major problem at the current courthouse.”

Darnell said the new courthouse would allow easy access to shuttle prisoners between it and the jail, as well as children from juvenile court to the Department of Family and Children Services, which is located next door.

The existing courthouse on Mulberry Street would be renovated and turned into county offices, according to a master plan created by The Facility Group and Dunwody Beeland Architects.

The proposed location immediately created a stir among downtown advocates, who argued that relocating the courthouse away from the heart of downtown would hurt businesses, especially restaurants.

Lynn Cass, former president of Macon Arts and currently a member of the Cityscapes Commission, said her informal estimate shows moving the courthouse to the other end of downtown could cost existing restaurants and businesses near the current courthouse about $400,000 in business annually.

“It would be death for restaurants in downtown,” Cass said during Wednesday’s meeting. “I’m afraid every time we take one step forward, we are also taking one step back.”

Downtown developer Tony Long said later that he also opposes the plan.

“All the folks who are coming out of the courthouse are eating downtown,” he said. “This would be a major blow to downtown if the restaurants close. ... The restaurants need that volume.”

But Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said the proposed area is part of downtown, and building the courthouse next to the jail would expand and strengthen downtown rather than harm it.

“I’m excited about the proposed location,” Reichert told NewTown board members. “I believe it’s going to attract more people downtown. There is so much more around here that could be developed. It will essentially double the size of downtown.”

A new courthouse became a pressing issue a year and a half ago.

Bibb County Superior Court judges issued an order in August 2007 for the county to build a new one by July 2009. The current courthouse is 84 years old and needs about $2 million in renovations.

The master plan’s report concluded that the county would need a courthouse that was a little more than 171,000 square feet with 200 to 400 street-level parking spaces. The current courthouse is a little more than 71,000 square feet.

The county commission voted last week to send out requests for qualifications for an architect who will determine how the current courthouse can be rehabilitated and what may be needed in a new courthouse, Richardson said.

Richardson said he met with the county judges Friday to present the plans for the new courthouse. He said the judges seemed supportive of the plan. Senior Judge Martha Christian extended the court order to build the new building to July 1, 2012.

Richardson, Hart and Darnell met with Macon City Council members Tuesday in a closed-door session to present the plan. Richardson said the county would need the city’s support to enact a special purpose local option sales tax in order to raise the capital to build the new courthouse and refurbish the old one. The two projects are estimated to cost between $60 million and $70 million.

NewTown President and CEO Mike Ford said he hasn’t yet seen the full report the county commissioned about the proposed site, so it’s difficult for him to determine the effect of the location on downtown businesses. NewTown is a public-private partnership designed to help downtown Macon develop economically.

“What we need to know is how the court system flows and the number of people they have, how it impacts downtown businesses,” he said. “Right now, I haven’t seen any kind of data.”

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report. To contact reporter Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.