Fate of York County Courthouse debated

The future of the York County Courthouse means more than relocating some employees to new offices, the County Council was told Monday. For those who spoke at the council meeting, it could mean the end of the town itself.

“I would hate to see downtown York become a ghost town,” Daniel Rueff, president of the Yorkville Historical Society, told the council.

But that’s what Rueff fears could happen if the historic but aging courthouse, in the midst of an expensive and long-stalled renovation project, were to close permanently and move operations to a building removed from the center of York.

“If you move to the outer belt, it will kill downtown York,” Rueff said.

The county has spent $1.5 million on “abatement” issues at the courthouse, removing mold, mildew and asbestos from the century-old building on Congress Street. The costs of the project have far exceeded the $5.3 million budgeted, leaving the ultimate fate of the property in limbo.

The possibility that the symbolic heart of the city and county could end up being abandoned, or reduced to an ornate storage facility for county paperwork, has raised concerns from the historical society and from York’s City Council.

York Mayor Eddie Lee wrote a letter to County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell and other council members on behalf of the City Council asking for an update on the status of the courthouse. The Yorkville Historical Society decided to write its own letter after a meeting last Thursday.

The York County Courthouse sits in the geographic center of York County, the spot from which justice has been dispensed since 1785, records show. The current building was built in 1914.

If the courthouse can’t be used as an office for county employees and a busy, functioning courthouse, locals fear it will deprive downtown businesses of their customers.

“It needs to be used for what it was intended for,” Rueff said.

Martha Blackwell told council members she was worried the eastern section of the county isn’t as concerned about the historic importance of the courthouse to York.

“I know it’s an inconvenience for some people to have to come all the way to York,” Blackwell said. “But between the Catawba River and the Broad River, we have so much history, and at the center of it is that courthouse. We have to save this asset for all of the county.”

The concern also was raised that the money York County is using to rent space elsewhere is coming out of the renovation budget, but County Manager Bill Shanahan said that money remains set aside for work on the building itself.

While county leaders seek a solution, Blackwell laid the blame for the problems on previous administrations.

“This council had nothing to do with the remodeling decision. That started in 2007, and our current county manager has gotten into it to make it more transparent,” Blackwell said.

The chairman said the County Council has no plans to tear down the historic building and is working with a consulting company to determine the best way out of the impasse.

“We have to do what’s best for the county,” he said. “There’s been a lot of mismanagement. We’re going to clean it up, but it’s going to take some pain.”

If that pain isn’t well-distributed, though, Rueff worries 2014 will be remembered by future historical societies as the year the courthouse, after more than two centuries of operation, shut down permanently and took the surrounding businesses and community with it.

“I don’t want to be the council member with that on my tombstone,” he said.