Architects interviewed; pick for Bibb courthouse project expected Monday

The Bibb County Commission spent eight hours Wednesday listening to polished sales pitches and interviewing architectural firms competing for the county courthouse project.

The six interviewed firms gave commissioners several design options for sites the commission already is considering — such as building on recently purchased property near the county jail or renovating the current courthouse location — and some they aren’t.

At least two firms suggested building a new courthouse in the parking lot next to the Grand Opera House at the corner of First and Mulberry streets. The firms suggested building a walkway through the Grand’s building to connect a new courthouse to the current structure, which could house administrative offices at its location on the corner of Second and Mulberry streets.

Commissioners viewed initial renderings of courthouses in L-shaped designs, half-circle designs, with or without parking decks, and some with an underground tunnel connecting the jail to a holding area for inmates in the courthouse.

“Regardless of which firm we select, we were presented with a lot of ideas today. It gives us food for thought,” said Commissioner Elmo Richardson, who was charged with heading up the search.

Commissioners plan to select an architect for the job at 9 a.m. Monday when they meet to work on the fiscal 2010 budget.

The chosen firm is expected to complete a needs assessment study, review site locations, renovate the existing courthouse and, if necessary, design and build a new one.

Representatives from several firms indicated that because of security concerns, renovating the existing courthouse structure for the courts would be more difficult — and more costly — than renovating it for administrative offices.

But staying in sales-pitch mode, they reminded commissioners that with the right amount of money, anything is possible.

The current courthouse has inadequate security, architects said, because judges, the public and inmates all travel through the same hallways. All six firms presented plans that would create three separate pathways for those groups, so none would ever mix.

All of the firms, which a committee of local leaders earlier whittled down from 23, have local architects or consultants who would be involved with planning and design, commissioners noted.

“It’s important to have some local representatives,” Richardson said. “With all these dollars going to be spent, it means some can be spent here.”

A previous estimate, which is several years old, put the cost of building a new courthouse at about $80 million. Commissioners hope to pay for any renovations or construction with a new special purpose local option sales tax.

The current courthouse on Mulberry Street has been in disrepair for years, and earlier studies indicate the courts may have outgrown their space. As a result, Bibb’s Superior Court judges have issued a court order to provide appropriate facilities by July 1, 2012.

The commission has a long way to go before it gets there. The work going on right now is very preliminary, Richardson said.

After commissioners choose a firm, developing the project’s scope and contract likely will take a month, he said. It will take another three to four months to conduct a needs assessment.

Then, the commission will take cost estimates and determine funding.

A new penny sales tax would have to go before county residents for a vote. And it may be another three years before construction, Richardson said.

Commission Chairman Sam Hart said all the firms are qualified and capable of doing the job.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.