Firm envisions multi-purpose courthouse campus for Darlington
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Plans for a new Darlington County courthouse were up for discussion at a public meeting held October 14, where representatives from the architecture and engineering firm Michael Baker International outlined their qualifications and discussed possible plans for a courthouse and county/city municipal complex.
Since its founding, Darlington County has built five courthouses: in 1785, 1825, 1873, 1904, and 1964. The early structures are all gone, lost to fire or age or progress, and the current ’64 courthouse has been deteriorating for decades. County administrator Terence Arrington said the recent heavy rains and flooding have exacerbated problems throughout the building.
“We’ve had an issue where the roof was leaking in multiple spots, and as a result we’ve had some mold and mildew, some carpet damage – a variety of issues specifically associated with the courthouse,” said Arrington, adding that buckled floor tiles, leaking windows, and bubbling plaster walls are visible in several locations.
Arrington noted that water damage and foundation issues have plagued the courthouse since its construction, even causing the county to file suit against architects and contractors in the early 70s seeking redress for these structural problems. He said that building maintenance director Andrew Smith is constantly working to patch up and clean trouble zones, but the building’s decline is outpacing these spot repairs and a permanent solution is needed.
Michael Baker International proposes to deliver that solution in the form of a new courthouse facility, to be built on recently cleared lots just off the Public Square, stretching about three block along North Main Street and two blocks east toward City Lane. This courthouse campus area could house a modern and more secure judicial facility as well as county offices and – potentially – City of Darlington municipal offices.
John Walsh, assistant vice president at Michael Baker and principal-in-charge for the Darlington County Courthouse project, said his firm was intrigued by the broad range of needs this courthouse campus could serve, and pointed out that they could help coordinate economic development financing or funding through the SC Commerce Department, Community Development Block Grants, Rural Infrastructure Agency funding, and SCDOT enhancement grants.
“We’ve been very successful writing grants for clients, with almost half a billion dollars in South Carolina over the years,” said Walsh.
Project manager David Willoughby ran through several representative projects Michael Baker has completed for other communities, including new courthouse facilities in Dorchester and Sumter Counties. Willoughby said that a new courthouse campus could include the current courthouse building on the Public Square – if it is economically feasible to renovate it – or the current building could be demolished and the area converted to green park space for courthouse workers, visitors, and downtown business customers to enjoy.
A brief question and answer period followed the presentation, and Darlington city manager Howard Garland immediately asked how much the Darlington might be asked to kick in for the project. Arrington responded that the county does not yet have a contract with Michael Baker for design or engineering, so no cost estimates are available at this point. He said that the county simply wanted to gauge interest from the City of Darlington in partnering with them on this project. Arrington also said city officials would be granted input on design aspects when the project reaches that phase.
Darlington County Council chair Bobby Hudson said the next step should be the formation of a Courthouse Committee to review procedural goals and make recommendations regarding financing, design, and construction for council’s approval. Hudson said that committee could be formed at council’s November 2 meeting.
A new feasibility study would likely follow; the county paid $75,000 for such a study in 2007, but that courthouse campaign eventually ground to a halt. Project financing options discussed by Darlington County Council over the past year have included a penny sales tax, levied to fund courthouse construction and rescinded once the project is complete.
Willoughby estimated the entire project, from study to design to construction, could take about two years.
“A year to get it built, programming studies, existing building studies, consolidation (of offices), and about nine months to design it,” Willoughby said, adding that, on the long side, construction could take eighteen months.
Arrington noted that a spirit of collaboration will be needed to speed along the process of council meetings and public meetings once the project is underway.