Courthouse part of big picture

We have been residents of Intown Macon for over 30 years. Both of our children went all the way through public schools within a mile of where we live. Between the two of us, we have worked at five different jobs all located within half a mile of where we live, in downtown and in Intown. One or the other of us has played a major role in the redevelopment of five different historic Intown neighborhoods. We are preservationists to the core and committed to downtown Macon.

It would be unthinkable not to renovate our landmark, but presently dysfunctional, courthouse. But we also believe it is well worth thinking about the desirability of building new facilities for Superior and Juvenile Courts on Oglethorpe Street in order to create a judicial campus there with the county Law Enforcement Center (LEC). There are at least two strong reasons to consider this possibility.

First, the LEC as it stands is a major detriment to the redevelopment of the central city. Let’s start with Beall’s Hill. Every outside team of architects and planners over the past 10 years has immediately singled the jail out as a huge negative for the redevelopment of Beall’s Hill (which has seen over $40 million in reinvestment in the past 10 years). It was a terribly shortsighted mistake to build the jail there to begin with. But there it is, and it has just been expanded to the size of a small prison. If the LEC were folded into a judicial campus (like Jacksonville or Memphis, for example), it would cease to be a negative and become a positive for the area.

Not only is the jail a detriment to Beall’s Hill but also to both Mt. de Sales Academy, located a few hundred yards away, and Mercer University, half a mile away. These two institutions, together with the Medical Center of Central Georgia within a stone’s throw of the jail, are the glue that has preserved the central city over the past four decades. Mt. de Sales and Mercer have made the decisions to stay in the city and invest heavily in their campuses. The Medical Center is investing heavily in its medical campus. This is the vast majority of private reinvestment in the central city over the past 20 years. A judicial campus on Oglethorpe Street would be a natural complement to these medical and educational campuses.

Take away Mercer, the Medical Center and Mt. de Sales, and all the king’s men and all the king’s horses wouldn’t stand a chance of revitalizing downtown. These three institutions (and Alexander II Elementary School) are the main reasons people come back into the central city for highly valued services and amenities. Over 6,000 people watched Mercer play basketball on campus last week. That’s the reason that revitalization of downtown needs to be re-launched from Mercer’s campus and include the residential neighborhoods between Mercer and downtown.

The hope is that the proposed College Hill Corridor will tie together all four of these institutions with amenities and services that will make these Intown residential neighborhoods attractive to young professionals and up-and-coming families and thereby re-energize downtown as well.

Protecting the huge investments of these three major central city institutions (and the 7,000 jobs they support) should be priority number one for downtown supporters. The future of not just the downtown, but of Macon and Bibb County, will rest with education, technology and health care — not with tire factories, museums or restaurants. Innovative, knowledge industries and the creative professionals they attract will be the only winning strategies in the new global economy.

There is also a strong nuts-and-bolts reason to consider putting the courts adjacent to the jail. Security risks in transit and the very costly deployment of personnel to transport prisoners are real factors for the sheriff and the Superior Court judges. Peter remembers vividly three years ago walking toward his office on Plum Street and seeing a young man throw himself out of the backseat of a car on Second Street, with a man in a suit in hot pursuit and the driver screeching through the back alleys by the Medical Center trying to catch him. Of course, they didn’t catch him. All the security in the world within the courthouse won’t fix the challenges of getting prisoners through city streets and city sidewalks to the courthouse.

Personnel costs for the LEC have ballooned. First of all, they went up because the city and the county couldn’t agree to build the most efficient jail expansion. That alone will cost us almost a million dollars a year in excess personnel costs.

As the jail population explodes, more and more deputy time is spent driving, waiting and standing around because the courts are a mile away through dense downtown automobile and foot traffic. We should ask Sheriff Jerry Modena what the difference in personnel costs over 10 years might be if the courts moved a block away from the jail onto a secure judicial campus.

Budgets are extremely tight. A SPLOST to renovate the old courthouse doesn’t address those ongoing costs, which come — every penny — right out of Bibb County taxpayers’ pockets.

We hope that the issue of the courthouse will be looked at carefully by the county commissioners, with all the considerations on the table. Where lawyers may choose to locate their offices and how many jurors eat lunch on Mulberry and Cherry Streets each weekday do not to seem to us to be the most important factors involved.

Peter and Bette-Lou Brown are residents of Macon.