Saving the historic courthouse

Laurens County has shifted its focus in terms of what is the most pressing buildings need right now – county council has agreed to spend $700,000 to “stabilize” the historic courthouse in downtown Laurens.

For years, the two “top priorities” have been the Hillcrest Square Judicial – Services – Administrative building and constructing a new headquarters for Emergency Medical Services. Now, the EMS project “has stalled,” the county administrator said last night (Feb. 12), and making sure the historic courthouse in downtown Laurens is safe and repaired has taken the second priority.

“This is a beautiful square, a very rare asset,” County Administrator Jon Caime said. “We have so much potential (in Laurens County) – for three years, you’ve been hearing this stuff from me.”

It’s on the front-burner now because Caime is leading the council through a Vision 2040 exercise. He and others have shown the need for a career center (combined Districts 56 and 55 project), an agriculture – horse shows center, a county park to complement River Forks (built by Greenwood County) and other projects. Caime said he will present another “big-ticket” project to the council in two weeks.

The county already is spending $3 million to replace the roof and install HVAC at Hillcrest Square.

Caime has said Laurens County’s identifiable capital needs cost $100 million.

The county cannot acquire that kind of money without voters’ approval.

There are no current plans to put it to a vote. Instead, Caime is advocating a slower, pay-as-we-go process of issuing General Obligation Bonds. A current bond (detention center renovations) is the next to be retired. It would cost $10 million to give Laurens County a “dream” courthouse, like a restoration project in York County, council was told.

Instead, council approved what it can afford - $700,000 to stabilize the historic building. That’s replacing rotting wood, making sure water does not seep in any more, and installing a modern fire alarm system. An additional $4.4 million would bring the building into the 21st century (inside elevator, etc); $4 million on top of that could restore the building to original 1840s grandeur.

The county will finance the $700,000 through its reserves. Council Chairman Dr. David Pitts and council member Diane Anderson voted “no” – Pitts said the entire $4.4 million version of the project should be done now, Anderson said it should be part of an overall General Obligation Bond project which has not yet been presented to council.

“This is a multi-million project – a large tax increase. But it also is a benefit to the county,” Pitts said.

The council has a 200-page report to read about how the historic courthouse can be restored to its “glory days”. Graig Gaulden Davis architects have developed the report. The last major renovation of the building was done in 1970, as it was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Under the plan presented to council, in the “dream” model, additions to the building in 1970 would be removed and large windows would be added to bring light back into the main courtroom/council chambers on the second floor. The building is not now handicapped-access compliant, and it does not have a fire-suppression sprinkler system.

For $10 million, all that and much more could be done. For $4.4 million the building could be brought to modern construction codes.

For $2 million - $10 million, the county could build a new EMS headquarters (replacing the current building across from The Ridge in Laurens), and bring some other county emergency functions under one roof. But Caime said that project “has stalled” over land acquisition issues. He said the historic courthouse “stabilization” cannot wait.

The county will not hire a contractor for the $700,000 repair work at the historic courthouse. Caime said that would have added $140,000 to the project cost. Caime and others will supervise the work, to be performed by sub-contractors.

The emergency nature of the repairs makes it necessary to place the historic courthouse at #2 on the priority list (behind #1 Hillcrest) and drop the EMS building to #3. Close behind EMS, council was told, is a complement park to the current River Fork swimming and boating area on Lake Greenwood.

Recreation Director Andy Howard said dangers at the current park have been well-documented.

But, he said, people who want to swim at Lake Greenwood have nowhere else to go, in a reasonable time. He said it’s a 48-minute drive from central Laurens to Greenwood State Park, and even longer to lakes in neighboring counties. He did not identify potential land for a new Lake Greenwood park on the Laurens County side; the park should be 10 acres and the ideal park would be 26 acres.

“We want to have a buffer. We want to have no public place beside somebody’s house,” Howard said.


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