BAMBERG -- Bamberg County in June announced it was moving ahead with a $6 million plan to renovate the county's historic courthouse.
Built in 1894, the courthouse will be completely restored for the circuit court, probate court, clerk of court and public defender.
"This has been a project that myself and county staff and the contractors have been working on now for over five years, and we feel pretty good about our recommendations," County Administrator Joey Preston said.
Bamberg County Council approved a resolution supporting a $6 million plan to finance the renovations.
The courthouse’s deficiencies include the presence of asbestos, foundational cracks, water infiltration, insufficient accessibility for the disabled, plus mechanical, plumbing and electrical problems, Preston said. He said there are also life safety and security issues, general repair and upgrade requirements and a lack of office functionality.
The courthouse remains unchanged since it was moved from the center of Bamberg to its current location on Main Highway in 1950.
"No upgrades or serious renovations have been performed in this courthouse, but just mostly patchwork repairs. The building's never been properly maintained after moving," Preston said. He noted the boiler has not been used since 2015 and presents an explosion hazard.
No hot water, a crumbling roof and parking areas, inadequate pedestrian access points and a pigeon-infested attic are among the issues which will be fixed with the help of a $6 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Also, the county C-Fund Committee has committed $250,000 to the project to improve roads and pedestrian safety and parking around the courthouse, Preston said. C-funds are the county’s share of the state’s gasoline tax.
The courthouse improvements will include the creation of functional spaces for the solicitor, public defender, family court and information technology departments.
The courthouse and its railroad history will also be commemorated under a plan to restore and relocate a historic caboose currently located in Ehrhardt to the courthouse grounds.
"The enhancement will provide both a historical and educational element to the Bamberg campus. Ehrhardt has really worked with us and when we finish with it, it will become a small railroad history museum," Preston said.
A town clock is also being proposed, along with expanding the front exterior to create a stage for community events, he said.
The $6 million loan comes with a 3.875 percent interest rate for a 40-year term. Annual payments will be about $298,000 under the proposed financing plan.
"We're going to be applying for any grant relief through the USDA. We don't know exactly what that is yet at this point and time until we apply and see what they give us," Preston said.
Construction is anticipated to begin in November 2019.
Hammond said while she supports the courthouse being restored, she has concerns about how the project is going to be paid for without a millage increase.
"We’ve got to know what we can do," Hammond said.
Preston said while there could be an increase in millage, "the best scenario is going to be we pay down our debt in 2021 and 2022 and we just turn around and we just take that millage and shift it over to pay it. ...
"The assumption is that between now and the year 2021 and 2022, we're not going to grow anything. Nothing's going to happen, we're not going to have any new industry, there's not going to be anything new happening to this community. That's entirely possible. But ... if you don't do it, you're not going to have anything happen, period," he said.
"We've put together the leanest budget we can come up with," Preston added.
Kinard said restoring the county courthouse would serve as a source of community pride, adding, "I think that's going to be the key in getting industry."
In a press release, Preston stated, "This project will not be easy, neither financially nor politically. However, the restoration of an important piece of Bamberg's history will be well worth the effort."
He said it’s the best time to start on the project since interest rates are expected to rise.
Comer said, "Council needs to make the difficult, but necessary, decision to move forward with this project to preserve this important building. If we continue to do nothing, our only option will be to demolish the existing structure and build a new courthouse."
The county would then lose the building and incur the additional cost of new construction.
Kinard said, "As we move forward in restoring the Bamberg County Courthouse to her former glory, we need to remember that this is not just about a building, it is about preserving our history."