BAMBERG -- Cracks snake up the interior walls of the Bamberg County Courthouse, leaving dark spaces wide enough to look into.
It’s just one of the problems in the historic courthouse, which is built on a slowly shifting foundation.
"The courthouse is in bad repairs," Bamberg County Clerk of Court Pedie Hiers said. “We need everything.”
Hiers, who has worked in the building for the past three decades, said "We don't have hot water. We don't have drinking water. We don't have adequate heating and air conditioning. We have mold everywhere. We found a snake in the bathroom."
A courthouse of needs
Built in 1897, the courthouse remains unchanged since it was moved from the center of Bamberg to its current location on Main Highway in 1950.
The original cost of the courthouse was $10,000, which was paid through a 40-year bond.
Sections were added onto the building around 1960. These sections today are separating from the original structure, causing the cracks.
According to Bamberg County Administrator Joey Preston, other issues include: the presence of asbestos, water infiltration, insufficient accessibility for the disabled, plus mechanical, plumbing and electrical problems.
There are also life safety and security issues, general repair and upgrade requirements and a lack of office functionality.
Other issues cited include a crumbling roof and parking areas and inadequate pedestrian access points.
The building’s old boiler once presented an explosion hazard, prompting the county to disconnect it.
Space heating and cooling are the norm throughout the building.
Also, the attic has often become a place for pigeons to use the bathroom and die.
Even so, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported no health-related complaints at the Bamberg County Courthouse.
"There are no state or federal mold regulations or standards," DHEC spokesman Chris Delcamp said. "Therefore, DHEC does not regulate mold and cannot test, monitor or inspect for mold, or indoor air quality in homes or public buildings, and we do not have regulatory authority in regards to bird carcasses in the attic."
An estimated eight to ten employees work at the courthouse on a regular basis.
General sessions, family and probate court are all still held at the courthouse.
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Renovating the courthouse
County officials say they have done what they can to improve the courthouse along and along, but the structure needs to be completely renovated.
"The Band-Aid fixing needs to end. The bleeding needs to stop," Preston said. "We need to fix the project, restore the building and have it here for another 100 years and then to take care of it."
Preston said construction officials have confirmed the building is safe for the public and employees within it.
"It is safe but it is not going to be if it is not fixed," Preston said. "We’ve got a plan and we are trying to implement it."
Tearing down the courthouse and building a new one is cost prohibitive, he said. Doing nothing is not an option.
"That is the most important building in Bamberg," Preston said. "There is not a building that is more prominent. If you want to talk about downtown revitalization and trying to bring business into downtown, when you have a building that looks like that in the condition that it is in – it is not helping."
"I want to see the courthouse restored," Bamberg Mayor Nancy Foster said. She’s also president of the Bamberg County Historical Society.
"It has historical significance from 1897 when the county started. It is really important to Bamberg because the Bamberg folks financed it and built it,” she said.
The county plans to seek a $6 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan to pay for the courthouse work. The application will most likely be submitted in the fall.
The interest rate on the loan is estimated at 3.875 percent over 40 years.
One of the first orders of business is the protection of courthouse records. The records are currently in a windowed room without any fire protection.
"We need to get them out of there," Preston said. "The clerk of court records need to be removed now."
Preston said the county cannot afford to move the documents out until temporary mobile units are set up. He says the new courthouse annex doesn’t have room for the documents.
"We are going to have large mobile units and set them up across the street in the detention center parking lot,” Preston said.
"We are ready for utilities to be plugged in," he said. "We have already found the company and we have negotiated a price. We are ready to go.”
The project will occur over a two- to three-year period and cost an estimated $100,000. It will be a part of the $6 million loan.
The overall courthouse improvement plan includes the creation of functional spaces for the solicitor, public defender, family court and information technology departments.
The plan also calls for commemorating the county’s history by restoring a caboose currently located in Ehrhardt. It would be moved to the courthouse grounds.
A town clock has also been proposed, along with expanding the front exterior to create a stage for community events.
The county's C-Fund Committee has committed $250,000 to the project to improve roads, pedestrian safety and parking around the courthouse. C-funds are the county’s share of the state’s gasoline tax.