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New courthouse? Just do it right

By Joseph S. Yates

When asked what I think about the prospect of a new courthouse, I offer a lawyer’s favorite response: “It depends.” I find myself approaching the issue not so much by considering whether our judicial and county offices need more space (they do) or whether the facilities for those who work in those offices are in dire need of modernizing (they are), but how this new building would affect the life of the city — the town where I grew up and have practiced law for the past 25 years.

To put it bluntly, New Castle is dying. Despite the best efforts of a handful of “do-gooders” over the past decade or so and a few façade restorations in the business district, there are far too many vacant or little-used buildings. The number of these empty shells continues to grow every year.

Revitalizing New Castle is a formidable task and frankly, may never happen. A thriving business district is crucial to the continuing viability of a town of any size and a busy and vibrant town center is essential to having and maintaining a sense of community. Although the restoration of older buildings and community get-togethers are very important, the key to revitalization is economic development. A properly placed building of this significance would unquestionably provide the stimulus for this.

I think Judge-Executive John Logan Brent has it right when he points out that this issue could become a distraction for the next several years — and it was courageous, politically, for him to say it out loud. He is in the unenviable position of having millions of dollars dangled in front of him to be used for a project that may not ultimately be the right thing to do.  Those who think that it would be foolish to pass up this “opportunity” will undoubtedly chastise him.  But it is not an opportunity yet, just a wad of money.

We are assured that this new facility will be located within the city limits.  That is simply not good enough. It must be located in or very near the center of town. Even though a tract of at least an acre and a half would be necessary, there are two or three sites that are excellent possibilities.

To place a new courts building on the outskirts of town or, more appallingly, on property so far from the city center that the city is required to annex it, would be a defeat. It would mean we just gave up — we joined the many cities and small towns that threw up their hands and passively allowed new and substantive business activity to develop outside the center of town. We then become just another town — no, just another spot on a map — one that folks driving into are greeted by a strip mall or a business park that sprouts faux colonial style buildings out of islands of asphalt… but with ample parking, of course.

Parking, you say? I bristle whenever this non-issue is brought up. Some folks can’t find a parking spot around the courthouse square on Monday mornings when District Court is in session. The city has a half-acre parking lot less than a block from the courthouse. With the exception of a couple of junk vehicles that reside there permanently, it is always empty.

I’m sure many who complain about parking in town are happy to drive to the mall, park, and then walk the length of two football fields to get to Macy’s. (One of our former mayors did some informal sleuthing a few years ago in response to a local merchant’s “lack of parking” complaints. He found that half of the available parking places in town were taken up by the business owners and their employees, who insisted on parking directly in front of their places of business. This fellow is still around, and you can ask him personally.) Incidentally, for some reason the town seems to be virtually abandoned in the middle of the week. I could swear that I have seen bramble bushes scooting down the main drag on Wednesday afternoons from my vantage point on South Main.

Add to the rear of the present courthouse? At the risk of sounding like a tree-hugger, that patch of ground is the only open space left for any type of outdoor communal activity in the city. If it is filled, it is simply gone — forever. When the issue of more space has come up in the past, building on the rear of the existing courthouse has always been the “too-easy” answer. Do we trade this last precious dab of green space for more office space or extra parking when we have other alternatives?  Simply eating up this parcel of ground is a solution in search of a problem.

It has been my experience that state money is more likely to be “freed up” if jurisdictions join together to provide public services. One example is Campbellsburg’s participation in the Carrollton Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. That being said, would it be naïve to imagine that this new structure could accommodate space for city offices as well? Our city workers desperately need more space and updated facilities. There is such a lack of adequate space that the city commission has had to conduct its monthly meetings in a separate location for the past several years.

But I have as jaundiced and skeptical a view of state government as the next guy. I am convinced that government bureaucracy is so straitjacketed that this money would be forthcoming only if a sparkling new “judicial center” is built somewhere — anywhere.

I fear this agency would not hear of other alternatives, and refuse to allow us to think “out of the box.” For example — and I am not necessarily advocating this, but it beats putting a new building on the outskirts of town — reusing and rehabilitating New Castle’s beautiful old existing buildings for county offices and undertaking an appropriate remodeling of the interior of the old courthouse for exclusively judicial use, perhaps with the addition of a second courtroom. It is an understatement to say that 10 or 12 million bucks spent judiciously (pardon the pun) could do Henry County and its county seat a tremendous amount of good.

If our fiscal court accepts this offer, and does not allow for a thoughtful and deliberate process about its location, I hope the budget for this project allows for an auxiliary crew to board up still more windows in New Castle’s business district.

This project must be done in the right way — or not at all.