Carthage officials are displeased with a proposal to expand the Moore County courthouse by shuttering part of a downtown thoroughfare.
The county had asked the Carthage Board of Commissioners to provide feedback on a preliminary site plan for the project. Prepared by Moseley Architects of Raleigh, the proposal reviewed by the town board on Monday would replace a section of Dowd Road with a “landscape mezzanine.”
If the plan is approved, motorists traveling north on Dowd Road would need to make a left turn on Saunders Street and then turn right on Ray Street to reach the downtown traffic circle. Town manager Tom Robinson said a new traffic signal would be installed on Ray Street to accommodate the change.
Addressing his fellow board members, Mayor Lee McGraw said the plan would discourage motorists from traveling to downtown Carthage. The proposal, he said, will also reduce the already limited number of public parking spaces downtown.
The courts facility opened in 1979 to replace the old county courthouse, which still sits in the middle of downtown Carthage. For the past few years, the county has been under increasing pressure from the state judicial system to replace or expand the current facility.
An earlier plan would have razed the old jail on Saunders Street to make room for a new courthouse. That idea was abandoned after Sheriff Ronnie Fields told county commissioners in January that his department needs the building in order to comply with a new state law requiring detention centers to hold younger juvenile inmates.
The latest proposal seeks to double the size of the courthouse by replacing the parking lot abutting Dowd Road with a second building. The preliminary design includes an underground parking bay, but Robinson said it would likely be reserved for courthouse employees.
Commissioner Milton Dowdy Jr. accused the county of “more-or-less looking for their own convenience.”
“They have land by the Rhyne Center that goes all the way to the creek,” Dowdy said, referencing the McNeil Street building that houses the sheriff’s office and the detention center. “They can put two or three courthouses there.”
He added: “They expect us to cave in when they have other options.”
While McGraw and Dowdy acknowledged that the mezzanine might improve the appearance of downtown Carthage, both men said there are no other apparent benefits for the town. Robinson said he had hoped the proposal would include an offer to donate the old courthouse, which could be repurposed as “a museum or arts center.”
According to Robinson, the county has also considered buying property from business owners in downtown Carthage. He said a barbershop and a service station are both being eyed in connection with the project.
“I like working with the county and hope we continue to (work together),” McGraw said. “But to say that they would go and buy our businesses up? That just kind of ticks you off.”
The commissioners are expected to revisit the proposal during their June 17 meeting. If approved, the plan will still require a public hearing and authorization from the state Department of Transportation.
County Manager Wayne Vest told The Pilot Friday that the county “is very concerned” with several aspects of the courthouse project and “making sure the correct balance is reached when considering functionality, cost, aesthetics, parking, maintenance cost, traffic impact, and impact on Carthage.” He noted that because of concern about the impact on Carthage, Robinson was appointed to the Courts Facility Advisory Committee and was on the subcommittee for narrowing the architect selection.
He added Robinson has experience as both a town and county manager, and was also involved in building a new courthouse in Rockingham County.
Vest said county has not made an official proposal to Carthage to close a section of Dowd Street, and that all of the discussions to this point have been “preliminary and ever-evolving, which is typical for projects of this size and scope.
“Through the many conversations, including Courts Facility Advisory meetings, about the court project, Saunders Street and Dowd Street have been discussed and how each may be impacted by the project or if a section of either could be closed if needed,” Vest said.
He said Saunders Street was discussed early on. and the county was advised that closing the street was not an option. He said discussions turned to the section of Dowd between Saunders and the circle, and possibly between the entrance of the Rhyne Center and the circle were discussed as a possibility, though nothing was official.
“To date, the architects have been working on schematic design and meeting with all of the stakeholders on the facility programming using the Solutions for Local Government programming as a guide,” Vest said. “As the schematic design is being developed and fine-tuned, the architects once again have met with stakeholders.”
Vest sad the current schematic plan, which is subject to additional modifications, attempts to place all of the new Courts Facility square footage on the existing site of the current Courts Facility at the corner of Dowd and Saunders, and attach the new and existing facilities. He said that would allow the county to continue using the existing facility for court-related functions.
“In the last round of meetings, the architects advised that if Dowd Road is indeed a possibility, that would alleviate some of the challenges of limiting the new square footage to the existing site and provide some flexibility in the design,” Vest said.
He added that county Capital Projects Manager Rich Smith had spoken with Robinson about bringing the current schematic plan with the Dowd Road closing to town leaders for “some preliminary and informal feedback.” He said Smith also informed Robinson that other sites potentially may be considered “in providing project flexibility and in helping strike that balance” on the various concerns
“In either of these items, road closures or site acquisitions, the county is aware of and will be following the required formal processes,” Vest said.
Vest said he has spoken with Robinson about a possible work session between county commissions and town board to discuss the project and the various options, concerns and opportunities.
“The county is fully aware that the court project is needed and that it will have broad impacts,” Vest said. “The county is and will continue to be deliberative in working methodically through each step of the process to make sure concerns are addressed and the correct balance is achieved.”