Gates launches phase one

Published 9:00 am Thursday, July 26, 2012

GATESVILLE – Gates County voters may get the chance to help decide the fate of the county’s historic courthouse.

However, those voters will not see that issue on a ballot anytime in the immediate future.

At their meeting here July 16, the Gates County Board of Commissioners fully supported a plan to have a Raleigh-based architectural firm launch phase one of a plan that will hopefully lead to the complete renovation of the late Federal style courthouse, one completed in 1836 and is showing signs of age.

The commissioners, in the same motion, also approved the formation of a committee who will determine an end use for the restored old courthouse as well as helping to identify funding sources and strategies for the renovation, and assisting ClearScapes Architects as needed with information, recommendations and suggestions during all phases of the restoration/preservation process.

As part of that discussion, but not approved at this early stage of the process, was the adoption of a financing plan for renovations (which is now estimated at between $3 million and $5 million) and allow the county’s registered voters to voice their opinion on whether or not to invest taxpayer dollars by way of a referendum at the earliest date possible allowed by NC General Statutes.

In order to avoid confusion among county citizens on the possibility of that referendum occurring as early as this November’s General Election, Gates County Manager Toby Chappell said there is a significant amount of legwork that must first occur prior to placing the issue before the voters.

“From the preliminary discussions on this from Monday’s meeting, it appears it is the sentiment of the commissioners to conduct a referendum,” Chappell said in a telephone interview later in the week. “However, to say a referendum will be part of the November 2012 ballot is a premature statement, considering the amount of work that has to be done in a short period of time to present this to the voters.”

Chappell added that additional research is also needed to ensure the county is following the direction of the State Statutes in regards to holding a voter referendum. He said based on information provided by the North Carolina Local Government Commission, there are only three ways to allow for a referendum – a dedicated (tax) levy format, a statutory reason, or a local bill introduced to the General Assembly.

“The problem with the latter of those is that the General Assembly doesn’t reconvene until January of next year,” Chappell noted.

“There are other questions that need to be answered first before we move to put this to a referendum,” Chappell added. “The biggest question is what is the exact dollar amount of the courthouse restoration project. We’re not at a point as of yet where we can comfortably say that a referendum will be held on a certain date.”

In the meantime, county officials and citizens will hopefully combine their talents and efforts to save the old courthouse.

“We have to make a decision on how we will move forward with the old courthouse,” said Commission Vice Chairman Henry Jordan who led-off the discussion on possible renovation of the 176-year-old building. “If we choose to do nothing then we will have an eyesore and possible liability issue. It has been the desire of many of our citizens to restore this property and we have contacted ClearScapes and they have given us a proposal on what it would take to move forward by doing a facility assessment.”

Jordan recommended his colleagues develop a plan of action, including the implementation of phase one of the ClearScapes proposal, which comes with a $33,000 price tag. That price may be lowered as officials with ClearScapes, in a June 28 letter to Chappell, said there are funding sources available for feasibility studies such as this that would help offset the county’s portion of the costs.

Jordan also suggested the formation of a committee to help guide the restoration and reuse process. That committee, he said, should consist of citizens from the various districts of the county as well as the commissioners, county personnel and members of the Gates County Historical Society.

Jordan’s recommendations also included the authorization for ClearScapes to launch phase two (develop schematics, construction documents and identify funding sources at a cost of $36,200); establish a maximum renovation/construction cost of $3-5 million (based on estimates); have the county manager look into long term financing strategies (30-year loan); adopt a financing plan and put that before the voters in a referendum format; and allow ClearScapes to move forward with phase three (renovation/construction) based on the results of the referendum and the securing the financing. The commissioners did not take any action on that list of future plans.

Jordan again stressed that he was in favor of a voter referendum, especially if it involved a property tax levy dedicated to help repay the loan for renovations.

“The sentiment of the citizens is to restore the courthouse,” said Commissioner Jack Owens. “I also like the idea of forming a committee to help guide us through this process.”

“It’s obvious that we don’t need to make the same mistakes we did with the library,” said Commissioner Johnny Hora who favored a voter referendum in that project (one now underway with a $1.5 million price tag funded by a bank loan, not a tax levy). “The citizens need to be included in the decision making process.”

In advance of a possible referendum for the old courthouse, Hora suggested sending out a survey to the citizens to gauge their thoughts on how to proceed with that project. He said those surveys – which could include questions like should the old courthouse be restored or torn down, be turned over to another entity, would you support a certain level of a tax increase to pay for the restoration – could be mailed out with the monthly water bills.

“From there we can build out a consensus and then establish a committee to work on the desires of Gates County citizens,” Hora said.

Hora also mentioned that the county may qualify for state and federal tax credits by saving such a historic facility.

Gates County citizens in attendance at the July 16 meeting weighed in on the issue.

Dan Bazemore said he liked the idea of allowing the citizens to have input on the courthouse renovation. He added that he recalled an earlier meeting where the renovation was discussed and said it was there he learned that the entire process could qualify for grant funding if the outcome produced a facility that was able to generate $250,000 in revenue annually.

“That would ease the burden on the taxpayers,” Bazemore stressed. “But we know that a $2 fee per person to visit the old courthouse isn’t going to generate $250,000 per year unless you have an overabundance of people that we’re not used to having coming to Gates County.”

He said there were other grants, ones that carry a local match, also available.

“Keep this up front and open to us,” Bazemore urged the board. “Don’t hide it behind the door and push this on the people. Let us vote on this.”

“I think before any vote is taken we need to know what the assessor looking at this will come across,” said Dan Lang. “I love history, I love historical buildings. In my mind the old courthouse would make a nice museum, but first we need to know what it will cost us to restore it.”

“Tell me the significance the old courthouse has to you, the commissioners, and the impact it will have on us, the citizens,” asked Sandra Nickens. “Did someone tell you that we needed to save the old courthouse and have it as a museum?”

“I think the voter referendum is the only way to go on this, not later when we’re faced with $3.5 million in debt based on the vote of just five people,” suggested Earl Rountree. “We have to do something with the courthouse.”

Jordan, before making the motion to proceed with phase one and the formation of the courthouse renovation study committee, did clarify that the cost ($33,000) associated with the initial stage of this process is already budgeted and does not require a tax increase. He added that he also favored a voter referendum, but the first step was to see what is needed to proceed from this point.

Owens offered a second and the measure was approved by a 5-0 vote.

Hora then suggested that he and Jordan draft a survey concerning the courthouse issue and mail that out to the water customers in the county.

“From that we can build a collective database to accumulate data to find out the direction we need before we address any committee,” Hora said.

“A survey has to be constructed where it’s not an overburden to the citizens,” Jordan noted. “We need to develop a survey that’s clear and concise. We just need to ask the citizens what do they want us to do with the old courthouse. Ask them are they willing to spend millions to save it.”

“While we’re discussing a voter referendum, I will remind this board that we need to make sure that we can legally conduct one on this issue,” said Board Chairman Graham Twine. “The only way we can legally do that is if we do a bond or if we increase taxes (to pay for it).”

“The voter referendum comes after the fact, after we conduct this survey,” Hora noted.

“If the survey comes back and says don’t do anything, then what do we do,” Jordan asked. “Do we just let the courthouse fall? The commissioners will have to make a decision regardless of what the survey says.”

It was at their Oct. 5, 2011 meeting where the commissioners formally launched an effort to restore the local landmark. The late Federal style courthouse, completed in 1836, is showing its age with cracks to the foundation as well as work needed inside. It is one of a small number of ante-bellum courthouses remaining in the state and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

ClearScapes was selected by the commissioners at their  Nov. 21, 2011 meeting to handle the old courthouse project.  The county solicited RFQ’s (Request for Qualifications) from firms interested in providing the engineering details that will hopefully lead to renovations. A total of 19 companies responded and were interviewed by the commissioners on Oct. 26.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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