Bibb may consider Telegraph site for new courthouse

The Bibb County Commission may be considering the site of The Telegraph as another downtown location for a new courthouse.

Two architectural firms chosen to analyze sites and design a new courthouse presented commissioners Tuesday with a project proposal containing four possible sites, including one undisclosed location.

Telegraph Publisher George McCanless said The Telegraph is the undisclosed site. Commission Chairman Sam Hart confirmed that, although, he said, the decision isn’t official yet.

Hart said late Tuesday night that the other commissioners weren’t aware the newspaper was the fourth proposed location, and he was waiting for more information before he asks them to vote to put it on the list.

McCanless said he approached Hart about the commission considering The Telegraph property on Broadway as a potential courthouse location. Since the newspaper’s production operations have moved to Columbus, much of the 170,000-square-foot building remains empty and expensive to maintain, he said.

“We would be better, more efficient in newer digs,” McCanless said.

Earlier Tuesday, the commission authorized Hart to sign the architects’ proposal, contingent on the county attorney and commissioners’ review. The proposal outlines the initial scope of work, including a needs assessment study and master planning services.

The firms — Atlanta-based Cooper Carry and Macon-based Brittain, Thompson, Bray, Brown Inc. — will be paid about $264,000 for the initial work, according to the proposal.

Previous studies indicate the courts may have outgrown their current space at 601 Mulberry St., and Bibb Superior Court judges have issued a court order to provide appropriate facilities by July 1, 2012.

McCanless described his talks with Hart as being in their infancy and said the newspaper had not given the commission a proposal to sell.

Even if it does get to that point, The Telegraph wouldn’t abandon Macon, he said. McCanless said he envisioned the paper moving into a smaller place downtown.

“The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter what building we work in,” he said. “We’re still going to have the same resources we have right now, and we are still committed to covering the Middle Georgia area and being the leading news provider for Middle Georgia.”

Hart also said the county is not currently negotiating the purchase of the property but rather asking the owners if it can be included in the site analysis for the courthouse. The other sites are the parking lot at the corner of Mulberry and First streets, a spot of land on Oglethorpe Street near the county jail and the BB&T building on Mulberry Street.

The architects will come up with concepts for each location, and the commission will pick the one it wants to pursue.

“We will get an opportunity to compare projects,” Hart said.

Earlier this year, the commission was criticized when it announced it was purchasing up to $3.3 million worth of land near the county jail, away from downtown’s core.

While some officials argued the land buy near the jail would expand downtown, some business owners and downtown boosters said moving the courthouse would hurt the area by decreasing foot traffic around existing shops and restaurants.

Commissioners appeared to back off from saying that a new justice center definitively would be built next to the jail. Instead, they vowed to review all options, including using extra space in the BB&T building, which one commissioner has heavily pushed.

The two architectural firms suggested during their interview that the commission consider the parking lot at the corner of First and Mulberry streets as another site, connecting it with the current courthouse through the Grand Opera House.

No matter which site is chosen, the commission has committed to restoring the current courthouse, which possibly would house county administrative offices.

How much a new courthouse or judicial center would cost is still unknown. A previous estimate, which is several years old, put the cost at about $80 million.

Commissioners hope to pay for renovations and construction with a new special purpose local option sales tax. A new penny tax would have to be put to a vote by county residents, which based on the architectural firm’s schedule, likely will occur in November 2010.

Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, though, said he would like to see if the commission can try to hold the referendum in July, a full four months earlier.

Although the courthouse will be the big ticket item for funding, there are other important issues that need to be addressed through a penny tax, such as recreation and the purchase of south Bibb property that lies in the accident potential zones of Robins Air Force Base, he said.

Also, Tuesday:

Ÿ Bibb Sheriff Jerry Modena told commissioners he wanted to look at alternatives to incarceration to alleviate pressure on the jail.

Longer stays by state prisoners and higher bail bonds that are keeping inmates in jail have the facility at times nearing its 966 inmate capacity, he said.

As of Tuesday morning, 928 inmates were in the jail, Chief Deputy Russell Nelson said.

Edwards suggested the sheriff’s office meet with the judges to discuss the working relationships of parts of the justice system.

“What happens in one part of the system — courts — is going to impact what you’re doing in corrections,” he said.

Ÿ Lake Tobesofkee Director Doug Furney told commissioners Saturday’s Sparks Over the Park event was the most successful in the past 10 years.

The 30-minute fireworks display brought in $21,830 — about $5,000 more than last year, he said.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.