Majority of Bibb commissioners favor Mulberry site for new courthouse

Bibb County commissioners are determined to build a new courthouse. Tuesday, a majority of them said they think the best site would be just a few doors down from the current courthouse on Mulberry Street.

At $79.5 million, that site would also be the cheapest of the options to build.

“All the questions were answered for me at the present site,” County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said after he heard an hourlong report by architects.

Hart and three other commissioners told The Telegraph they are favoring the Mulberry Street location. Before Tuesday’s briefing by the architects, a majority of commissioners had favored an Oglethorpe Street location near the current Law Enforcement Center. The current site of The Telegraph also was being considered.

Commissioners are scheduled to formally vote on the site Thursday morning, when they’ll begin pushing for a new sales tax to pay for the building.

Several residents pushed county commissioners for the Mulberry Street location during Tuesday night’s meeting. Ronald Conners, a downtown developer, said the Oglethorpe location would sap life from downtown at a critical time. Speaking as a member of the architect selection committee, Mike Ford also called for the Mulberry Street site.

“It’s cheaper, it’s less disruptive and people can continue to walk from their offices to the courthouses,” Ford said.

Architect Gene Dunwody Jr. and developer Tony Long both said they’d lobby for a sales tax if the commissioners picked the Mulberry Street site.

Architects said Tuesday the current courthouse isn’t usable for courtrooms any more, because it’s only two-thirds the size it needs to be. Under all of the architects’ plans, the existing courthouse would be partially renovated into government office space, potentially accommodating parts of a Macon-Bibb County government consolidation.

If the Mulberry Street site is picked, a four-story courthouse would be built in a parking lot next to the Grand Opera House. According to plans, the county would also buy up the IBM office building at Walnut and First streets, turning that into a large parking garage.

County commissioners also are discussing buying the BB&T bank building — which comes with its own parking garage — for $8 million, which would reduce the size of the needed parking garage.

Without BB&T, the Mulberry Street plan comes in at $79.5 million, somewhat cheaper than an $80.4 million project at The Telegraph site and much cheaper than a $85.8 million project on Oglethorpe Street. Most of the additional cost at Oglethorpe Street comes from a $5 million tunnel to move prisoners between buildings. Architects said inmates could instead be driven to the court a half-block away.

Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said he still favors Oglethorpe Street but thinks Mulberry Street also would be a suitable location. Commissioners Bert Bivins and Elmo Richardson, who previously had favored Oglethorpe Street, said they were leaning toward Mulberry Street. Commissioner Joe Allen wants the Mulberry Street plan, but he also wants to buy the BB&T high-rise for office space and turn The Telegraph site into a park.

Allen said the space in the BB&T building would be needed if Macon and Bibb County governments eventually merge.

“If we’re going to put it on a ballot, why not correct it all at one time?” he asked fellow commissioners.

Richardson, though, said there is no point in adding $8 million to the final bill.

“It makes no sense for me at all to buy an $8 million (BB&T) building for which we have absolutely no use,” he said.

The sales tax vote likely would be scheduled for July. Architects would be working on better plans and cost estimates before then.

Commissioners separately debated the need for adding a $3.5 million Juvenile Court building on Oglethorpe Street, near some other agencies. Such a center could help bring more services together for troubled youths and help the county get ahead of crime problems, Hart said.

Additionally, a Middle Georgia Regional Commission analysis released Tuesday said building a new main courthouse on Mulberry Street or at The Telegraph site would have little effect on downtown businesses. Building the courthouse on Oglethorpe Street would harm shops and law firms near the existing courthouse, though new stores and law firms could open near Oglethorpe Street in a few years.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.