For the first time in five years, there’s a bit of clarity regarding the uses of the old Flagler County Courthouse and its larger annex: Bunnell’s city administration and government have secured enough money to take on refurbishing the interior of the old courthouse and occupy it as its new city hall, eventually ending Bunnell’s rent-free use of space in the county administration building. Bunnell secured a revolving loan fund of $2.7 million from Intracoastal Bank, from which it would direct $1.5 for design and construction at the old courthouse.
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office continues to be interested in taking over the larger courthouse annex, though the $5.25 million necessary to make that possible is still a hurdle. That money has not been secured, and may hinge on the county’s ability to renew the half-cent sales tax in a referendum later this year.
But a meeting of the Flagler County Commission Wednesday afternoon put more concrete numbers and more focused interest by commissioners toward moving the Bunnell and sheriff’s options toward reality—pending, of course, a joint meeting with Bunnell and a credible financial plan for the annex. The sheriff not only wants new headquarters, which the annex would accommodate (while helping in the revitalization of downtown Bunnell). He also wants a new jail, or money to expand the existing jail. That, too, is playing into the sales tax calculations.
Wednesday’s commission meeting, however, was focused forcing some action on the courthouse and its annex. There’s some urgency at work because repairing and maintaining the buildings is costing the county money with little return. Between design costs, roof and air conditioning repair and other costs, the county shelled out $388,658 in 2009. On top of that, the county spent $35,346 top study building needs, and an additional $140,000 for planning and design, for a total of $564,004 in what the county administration calls “investments to date” in that building, since 2007. That does not include the $75,000 a year in “holding costs”—keeping the building basically maintained. Add it all up, and the old courthouse and annex will have cost taxpayers $1 million by year’s end (since 2007), without it being used. The county clearly wants new tenants.
The old courthouse, built in 1926, has 11,230 square feet of usable space. The annex, built in 1982, added 32,300 square feet of usable space, for a combined 43,500 square feet. (In comparison, the Government Services Building has 125,000 square feet.)
In September 2007, the annex and the courthouse were vacated entirely, because roofing over the older structure was in risk of collapse. The county commission at the time hired an architect firm to study the building’s required repairs. The structural integrity of the building was cleared in 2009. The roof and the air conditioning system was upgraded and stabilized. In June 2010, the sheriff said he was interested in taking over the annex for his headquarters, with conditions.
Principally, the sheriff did not want to share the building with the Bunnell Police Department, and he wanted the old portion of the courthouse entirely segregated from the annex, with its own entrance. “If construction is accomplished in this manner,” Sheriff Don Fleming wrote the county commission in June 2010, “I would have no concern as to who occupies the space in the historic courthouse, as long as it is not another law enforcement agency.” The Flagler County Historical Society and the Bunnell city offices have been interested in taking space in the old courthouse. For now, the Bunnell offices are using space in the Government Services Building, rent-free. The county commission is running out of patience with that arrangement.
In late February, the Bunnell City Commission voted in favor of “a financial plan to pay for design and construction” at the old courthouse “to occupy and contribute to the restoration of the old historic county court house,” as Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson wrote the county.
County Administrator Craig Coffey is proposing a partnership with Bunnell to let it have “condominium type space” in the old courthouse, with some shared responsibilities, and some (like utilities and maintenance) not. “They’re coming to the table in a serious manner with a lot of money,” Coffey said of Bunnell, but it’s still not clear what the relationship between the county and the city will be, when it comes to the upkeep of the building. That may affect what Bunnell decides to do with the interior of the building.
Commissioner Milissa Holland was concerned about refurbishing that would mask or gut the historical value of the old courthouse, especially if it eliminates the potential of turning the property into a historical landmark that could qualify for grants.
“I’m not sure in the interior that’s extremely historic,” county commissioner Alan Peterson said. The facades are unique, the paneling is attractive, “but I don’t know that keeping an existing courtroom makes a lot of sense.”
“A building that’s getting ready to be 100 years old and that was part of the birth of the county, I think is historic in itself,” Revels said.
Mary Ann Clark, the head of the Flagler Historical Society who’d previously been involved in talks with the county about future uses of the courthouse, had not been told about this meeting, and was surprised to hear about it as she worked in the society’s archives across from the old courthouse, this morning. The society has been interested in moving its offices and archives to the old courthouse.
“I think it would be a failure not to preserve some of the things that we can keep,” Armando Martinez, the Bunnell city manager, said, describing the “Norman Rockwellish” aspect of the building. On the other hand, he said, his 11 departments have to be able to fit in the space—making such things as old courtrooms dispensable. “Until we sit down and actually look, we won’t be able to determine some of that stuff,” Martinez said.
Holland said she’d “hate to see” some of the historical value of the building “taken away unnecessarily.” She noted how “communities that preserve their history preserve a higher value to the future for their community.”
Peterson’s concern persisted: “If we put restrictions on it that destroys Bunnell’s ability to use the space, then they’re better off going somewhere else,” he said.
That’s not likely. “We’re looking to revitalize downtown,” Catherine Robinson, Bunnell’s mayor, said, describing the courthouse as a mecca of redevelopment. “We want it to be a showcase,” she continued, saying the county and the city were on the same page, “because it is a historic building for the county, it’s not just a historic building for Bunnell.”
Moving to the details of the sheriff’s needs, Coffey for the first time presented estimates of what it would cost the sheriff to either expand his existing headquarters or take over the old courthouse annex. “What I’m trying to do is give you some kind of perspective,” Coffey said. According to those numbers, it would cost $5.25 million to rebuild the annex to match the sheriff’s needs. It would cost $8.6 million to build a two-story building of the same size on the sheriff’s existing grounds on Justice Lane in Bunnell (that is, 36,400 square feet). And if would cost the sheriff $4 million to build a building half that size. The refurbishing of the annex might actually be $500,000 less expensive because that sum was included in Coffey’s calculations, even though $500,000 worth of “brick façade work” on the annex would not be necessary.
Commissioner Nate McLaughlin had worries other than historic when he brought up the traffic of inmates and arrested individuals in and out of what would be the sheriff’s new HQ. “You’ve got a public park and a playground just off-screen there. From a planner’s point of view,” McLaughlin said, “would you say that putting an inmate facility next to a park is a good idea?”
“It’s not an inmate facility. It’s administrative offices,” Revels said.
“You’re talking about bringing prisoners in,” McLaughlin said.
“They will eventually interrogate some people out there,” Coffey said, “but you’ve got to remember for years at this courthouse you had your county employees there, that wasn’t unsafe, you had judges there, inmates going in and out for decades.”
“I’m just throwing it out there,” McLaughlin said.
“Plus you’ll have all those sheriff’s deputies sitting in that building. I wouldn’t mind having a park right by there,” Revels said.
“These are sheriff’s deputies, these guys all carry guns, so if you’re dumb enough to do something there with all those sheriff’s deputies—
“Yeah, that’s what I want,” McLaughlin retorted, “a deputy shooting at somebody who’s running near a playground. Yeah, that’s good planning.”
“I wouldn’t think they’d be shooting at somebody there,” Coffey said, later stressing the importance of bringing a police agency to the center of the city rather than having it outside of town.
Coffey also submitted options that would entail demolishing the old courthouse while leaving the annex standing, or demolishing the annex and leaving the old courthouse standing—or demolishing both. He presented the options merely as points of discussion, for the commission to be fully informed. The options ranged in cost from $540,000 to $624,000.
Next on the county’s agenda is a more formal, face to face meeting with the Bunnell City Commission to develop an agreement between the two governments on when and how the old courthouse would be re-occupied.