Enquirer Herald

Debate heats up over courthouse preservation

One York leader said he fears county officials want to demolish the century-old York County Courthouse.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ask again for the preservation of the county courthouse and its use as a county office building.

The vote followed a long discussion, during which York Mayor Eddie Lee said he’s worried the county may tear down the courthouse.

The city joins a growing chorus of groups from Western York County that have chimed in on the debate. They include the Greater York Chamber of Commerce and the Yorkville Historical Society, both which have supported the restoration of the building as a functioning courthouse.

County officials told the Enquirer-Herald they have made some inquiries about the logistics of tearing down the courthouse, built in 1914. However, County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said the council hasn’t seriously discussed that possibility.

York County Council member Chad Williams said he asked Assistant County Manager David Larson to find out what would be required if the county decided to demolish the courthouse and build a new one in its place.

“We’re at the point where we need to ask these questions,” Williams said. “It’s time to ask all the questions so we can move forward with the correct decision.”

Eric Emerson, the state’s historic preservation officer and director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, said he told Larson last week that York County could tear down the courthouse, even though it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Absolutely, they could,” Emerson said. He said the prestigious National Register designation does not protect properties from demolition.

However, Emerson said that if federal money is involved in any aspect of the project, the county would need to consult with his office before moving forward.

Emerson said his office aims to see such properties preserved.

“We would prefer the building continue to be used for the purpose in which it was created and preserved,” Emerson said. “Our second choice would be the building would be preserved and used for some alternative purpose.”

Emerson said some county courthouses in South Carolina have been renovated and used for purposes such as performing arts venues.

Larson told the Enquirer-Herald that during his conversation with Emerson, he learned about potential sources of grant money for the courthouse project.

Larson said the county is continuing to evaluate the costs and scope of work and is making “a very active effort to determine if there are additional funding sources.”

Williams said he sees two issues with the courthouse: Preserving the historic building and keeping courthouse traffic in downtown York for economic vitality.

He said building a new courthouse in York would solve “the problem of keeping the courthouse employees downtown.” However, he said it might be too expensive to solve both problems.

The courthouse renovation has been in the works for years. But some County Council members balked at the cost of moving forward during an August meeting where the project was discussed.

Larson said the courthouse renovation has been estimated by the architect at a cost of $11.2 million, including $8.1 million for construction and $3.1 million for design services, abatement work, furniture, inspection fees and other costs.

He said the county has about $4.2 million in the courthouse project budget, about $7 million short.

He said the county has spent about $1.3 million for the abatement of mold and asbestos, architectural services, some site work and lease payments for rental space for the Clerk of Court and Common Pleas.

Williams said one of the biggest expenses in the project involves making it accessible to the disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because the building was built in phases with different levels, adding elevator access is costly, he said.

He said another possibility is making only part of the building accessible to the public. “It would keep that existing building, but not as a courthouse, with some public use,” he said.

Blackwell said the council hasn’t had any serious discussions as a group about demolishing the building. He said the the council is waiting for recommendations from Cumming Construction Management.

“I’m not saying that’s not an option,” Blackwell said of the demolition. “Who knows what they’re going to come back and tell us. But I don’t think we’re looking at anything that drastic right now.”

Some York City Council members expressed a desire to work with the county to solve the problem and to mobilize support rather than being adversaries.

The council last month asked Blackwell to visit and talk to them about the courthouse. Blackwell said he would be glad to do so but it waiting for the report from Cumming.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could come together and talk through these things?” said City Councilman John Shiflet. “We all want to make a difference.”

City Councilman Denise Lowry agreed. “I think it’s real important that we work together, and not alienate the County Council,” she said.

City officials said they would send another letter to the County Council expressing their position and a second letter to the York County legislative delegation asking for support to find money for the courthouse renovation.