Bibb courthouse to be built on Mulberry

The Bibb County Commission united behind an $83.6 million plan to build a new courthouse at Mulberry and First streets, just a few doors down from the current courthouse.

If voters agree to a sales tax increase, the new courthouse would rise from what’s now a parking lot next to the Grand Opera House. The current courthouse would be renovated and turned into government office space, and the IBM building site at First and Walnut streets would be cleared and turned into a parking garage. A separate Juvenile Court building would be built near the jail near Oglethorpe Street.

Just two months ago, a majority of commissioners were advocating putting all the courts on Oglethorpe Street. The last holdout, Lonzy Edwards, switched his vote this week in part because of cost projections for a tunnel to move inmates between the jail and court. Edwards described it as “$5 million to dig a hole in the ground.”

The move to keep the main courthouse in the central business district is being praised by business leaders.

Developer Tony Long said if the courthouse had moved, downtown Macon’s rejuvenation would have been reversed. Long said half the storefronts would become vacant, restaurants would close and lawyers would leave downtown’s core. He said he’s ready to start advocating for the sales tax needed to build the new courthouse on Mulberry Street to strengthen downtown.

“It will be a really, really good thing for the community — for the entire community, not just downtown,” he said.

Mike Ford, the leader of NewTown Macon, said keeping the courthouse in the same area as it is now would keep lawyers walking to court and courthouse visitors walking to restaurants and shops.

“This is an outstanding selection having, if anything, a positive effect on downtown,” he said.

Macon City Councilman Rick Hutto praised his counterparts in county government.

“I’m absolutely delighted,” he said. “We need to protect our downtown, and I’m glad the commissioners made the decision they did.”

Two months ago, County Commissioner Joe Allen was the only person openly advocating the Mulberry Street site.

“I’m glad the commissioners finally saw the light,” he said Thursday.

While the vote was unanimous, plenty of obstacles remain. The biggest challenge could be the passing of a special purpose local option sales tax in a vote planned for July 20, 2010. If voters approve the sales tax, about half the money will have to go toward the courthouse, officials have said.

Asked what would happen if the tax doesn’t pass, County Commission Chairman Sam Hart declared, “It’s going to pass.” He paused, then repeated, “It’s going to pass.”

Meanwhile, Allen said he also would push for the county to buy the BB&T bank building, which would be the only parcel in the block not under the control of the county.

Under the plan approved Thursday, a four-story, 170,000-square-foot courthouse would be built in the parking lot next to the Grand Opera House. Much of the existing courthouse would be renovated for county offices, leaving vacant 34,000 square feet. A 600-car parking garage would be built on the corner of First and Walnut streets where the IBM office building is now. The parking garage could tie in to both the new and old courthouses.

The county commission, with architectural firms Brittain Thompson Bray Brown of Macon and Cooper Carry of Atlanta, considered a handful of sites for new construction. The architects said the current courthouse is too small to accommodate the courts’ needs, no matter how it was renovated. They also said the BB&T building simply wouldn’t work.

Commissioners were discouraged about high costs at the Oglethorpe location, which is outside the central business district, and they never warmed to the idea of buying The Telegraph site on Broadway.

Hart said concerns about hurting the central business district played a role in his decision.

“I’m extremely concerned that we didn’t get at cross purposes with what’s happening downtown,” he said.