Columbus County’s most recognizable landmark could once again be home to court proceedings.
On a 5-2 vote Monday, commissioners approved a plan that would use some of the proceeds from the sale of the Georgia Pacific property – not a tax increase – to fund the repairs.
Commission chair Rickey Bullard presented the proposal. He said he feels sufficient repairs can be made to the hundred-year-old courthouse to bring it back into service.
“The GP sale was $1.7 million,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll need to use all of that.
“Obviously there’s no way to tell right now exactly how much it will cost, but this is a viable alternative. It will create some courtroom space, and the citizens deserve to see that building be used for something.”
The courthouse was closed in 2012 due to problems with mold, handicapped accessibility, cramped spaces and other issues. All court activities and offices were moved to the new annex.
The old courthouse has remained closed since then, while commissioners wrangled over what to do about the estimated $5 to $7 million required to completely update the facility. The county took over the now-closed Georgia Pacific plant when that company closed production here. The property was sold to Corman Railroad in 2018.
Bullard said the minimal repairs and stabilization of the old courthouse are extensive, but manageable.
“We’re looking at replacing the floors, providing handicapped accessibility, painting, and repairing some windows,” he said.
The annex has been plagued by problems since before it opened. Budget cuts and changes that occurred during the construction process led to issues with mold, leaks, malfunctioning heating and air conditioning systems, and multiple other problems. In 2019, Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser entered an order requiring the county commissioners to explain why nothing had been done to fix the problems with the annex. That order required a formal plan be in place by last spring – right around the time the pandemic shut down the court system.
Clerk of Superior court Jess Hill had repeatedly urged commissioners to make use of the old courthouse as well as the annex. Renovating the old facility so the courtrooms and office space could be used were always part of the longterm plan that began with the construction of the annex.
One of the larger challenges, Bullard said, will be removing the wall that divides the single large courtroom upstairs into two smaller courtrooms. The size of the courtrooms in the annex has been a problem since the facility was opened.
Due to the pandemic, most trials and court sessions have been switched to the Hallsboro Middle School site, which allows room for social distancing. Several other counties and the Administrative Office of Courts have examined Columbus County’s Hallsboro annex as a possibility for use during the pandemic.
The county leases the school facility – which closed last spring – from the Board of Education. As many as three courtrooms can be open at the same time in Hallsboro.
Bullard said that there’s a possibility Hallsboro won’t be needed after the old superior courtroom in Whiteville is reopened.
“That would save us some money,” he said.
Nothing has been finalized, Bullard said, but he said the board felt it was important to at least identify some possible routes, and get started.
“So far, I think Judge Sasser and Mr. Hill are in favor of this,” he said. “We won’t know exactly how much it will cost yet, but we’ll be sure it’s right before we do anything.
“The building has been sitting there doing nothing for long enough,” Bullard said. “The new members of this board promised that something would be done about the courthouse. This is just a first step.”