For over 20 years, Santa Rosa County has debated what to do with its crumbling courthouse, but a new plan may satisfy all parties involved according to the one who created it, Santa Rosa County Commissioner Rob Williamson.
“I think we’ll look back on this as a historic week,” said Williamson. The plan to put a new judicial center near the intersection of Pine Street and Elmira Street, he said, will make everybody happy.
Williamson said after Monday’s commission meeting “I tried to take a fresh look at the downtown area and see what’s possible” and he noticed how the properties the City of Milton had just acquired had nearly the same footprint as the proposed courthouse design.
There are three general groups Williamson identified concerning the courthouse: those who believe Milton’s growth depends on moving the courthouse “to free up the valuable central corridor,” another saying the courthouse should stay for the same economic reasons, and a third mainly concerned with spending tax dollars for new property.
According to Williamson, his plan would satisfy all three by letting new development take over once the new courthouse is finished, keeping current courthouse traffic downtown since it wouldn’t move far, and using property the city already planned to acquire.
Williamson noted the original design kept the courthouse on what “some argue is the most valuable property…Now we’re putting the courthouse on the least valuable property downtown, property that backs up to the train tracks. I was having a difficult time making that return on investment work.” He said at the same time the property value for the Pine Street design would also improve.
Addressing previous concerns about the location, Williamson said there would be plenty of room for secured parking and a retention pond. He also noted the public defender, clerk, and state attorney’s office could fit there as well, a concern he raised Monday about the current design.
HOK is the design firm the county hired to create the new courthouse. Williamson said he’s already had a conference call with HOK and said they agree, from design consideration, it’s a better location.
Now all of these groups, Williamson said “have the opportunity to win and instead of working against each other, they now have the opportunity to heal…not only for a better city, but a better Santa Rosa County.”
City of Milton Planning Director Randy Jorgenson said, “Is that a conceivable location for the courthouse? The answer is unequivocally yes.” The area, Jorgenson said, could cover plenty more than the estimated necessary 75,000 square feet. “If they want to go to 180,000 square feet we could do it, 200,000 we could do it.”
Two of the properties involved, Jorgenson said, the city already acquired and two others are owned by CSX and Theresa Messick. Dealing with CSX he said means going through the bureaucracy for ponds and parking, and he believes Messick, wife of City of Milton Councilman Jimmy Messick, “would be a willing seller.”
Further detailing the cost of the properties, Jorgenson said the county’s “project cost is zero for this portion of this project. We bought it. Our money is made off of utilities, not taxes.”
November 2 at the City of Milton Executive Committee meeting, attendees will hear more on this plan. Williamson said he next plans to share his proposal at the November 9 commission committee meeting.