Courthouse – again – slated as possible library site

The hilltop above Sylva that’s home to the iconic historic courthouse is back on as a potential site for a new Jackson County library.

The location has been in the running on and off over the past several years during a heated community debate over where to build a new library. Despite numerous fans, the historic courthouse hilltop has repeatedly been dismissed as unfeasible and impracticable, largely due to space constraints and the difficulty of blending a new building with the old.

The fate of the site seemed sealed for good when the county bought land for a new library adjacent to a strip mall on the outskirts of town two years ago. But construction never started, giving three newly elected county commissioners a chance to re-visit the idea this winter. They called for an architect to assess the feasibility of the historic courthouse to make sure once and for all it wouldn’t work.

A few weeks ago, that report came back with a negative view of the site: there wasn’t enough room for either a library or parking on the hill. The fate of the historic courthouse location once again seemed sealed.

But it still wasn’t enough to satisfy Commissioner William Shelton. As Shelton pored over the architect’s report, he realized it was based on flawed assumptions — that a new library would have to be squeezed in between the courthouse and the old vacant jail. Another flawed assumption was that other uses on the hill — namely the driver’s license office and parking lot for county transit shuttles — couldn’t be moved.

Shelton made several visits to the historic courthouse over the past few weeks. He paced off the footprint of a library — assuming the old jail was torn down — and it seemed to him there was plenty of room. Next he paced off the perimeter of parking lots, assuming the Jackson transit lot was relocated, along with the driver’s license office. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so impossible.

“The impression was that it simply can’t be done. That’s where the vision comes in,” Shelton said. “I went up there with the express reason of trying to look at it through the lens of how we could do it.”

Last week, Shelton called for a more in-depth study from the architects — this time with a different premise. Assume the hilltop is a blank slate other than the historic courthouse.

When Shelton proposed the idea to fellow commissioners, he tried not to offend Commissioners Joe Cowan and Brian McMahan, who both were on the board two years ago when the county bought the land beside the strip mall.

“My hat is off to you guys for finding the site, but from what I gather it is a site of resignation. I haven’t heard anyone say with a gleam in their eye, ‘Oh the Jackson Plaza site is going to be beautiful. I can’t wait.’ It’s always, ‘Well it is up there in the shopping center but it’s the best site we have so we might as well build it,’” Shelton said. “On the other hand I hear people say about the old courthouse site, ‘Oh gosh I would love to have it up there, but it just can’t be done.’”

That’s what Shelton isn’t willing to believe.

“Who says it can’t be done? When I actually got up there and started stepping it off and started dreaming a little bit, I think it is very doable. Anybody in the country can build a library at the end of a shopping center, but we have an opportunity to do something truly unique,” Shelton said.

Commissioner Tom Massie was quick to agree. Massie said there was no need to carve up another mountain to make way for building sites when the county had an existing site at its disposal.

“The courthouse sits there on the hill by itself with very little visitation. It is sitting there vacant and we just pour money into it to keep it up,” Massie said.

Commissioner Brain McMahan agreed to support a second study, but added that the public is getting impatient. The public has been waiting on a new library for a decade while a fight over the location played out. McMahan said he wants to get on with it. He agreed to the study, with the caveat it be finished within 45 days.

“When we get this information back, we need to make a decision one way or another. Let’s make a choice,” McMahan said.

Commissioner Mark Jones also agreed to the second study.

”I can be a little more patient for 45 days for us to make a decision of this magnitude,” Jones said. Jones, too, poked around on the hilltop, and said it could be possible after all.

The only commissioner who disagreed was Commissioner Joe Cowan.

“We’ve been going through this thing for years. Over the last three years in particular, we have had public hearings, we have had information sessions, we have had everything from questionnaires to straw poles,” Cowan said. “There’s some things about the (strip mall) site I don’t particularly like either, but it was the only one within proximity to the town of Sylva that seemed to fit the bill. I thought we had pretty well skimmed that gap.”

Cowan said it was his opinion that the historic courthouse site won’t work.

Shelton replied by quoting Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right,’” he said.

In addition to tearing down the old jail and moving out the driver’s license office and the parking lot for transit shuttles, some library functions could be housed in the historic courthouse, Shelton said. For example, the old courtroom could fill the bill for an auditorium, one of the necessities of a new library. A new library also calls for reading rooms and meeting space, which could also go in the courthouse.

But Cowan said cultural and historical groups were hoping to turn the courthouse into a cultural heritage center.

“I don’t know how they are going to feel if we say. ‘no we have another use for it,’” Cowan said.

Shelton said the cultural and historical groups can still have space in the courthouse for exhibits and a center. Massie agreed they could be tied in.

“The library complex on the courthouse hill then becomes the cultural center, the civic center, the historical center and a center of lifetime learning. It gives people a lot of reasons to go up on the hill and enjoy that facility,” Massie said.

Shelton and Massie also argued that fundraising would be easier for the historic courthouse location. The county commissioners have budgeted $4.2 million in 2008 for a new library, but it will cost more than that. The community will have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in private donations to round out the library furnishings and books.

The architects will get started with the new feasibility assessment in the next week or so, based on the new premise of a blank slate. Shelton doesn’t know why that wasn’t communicated to the architect initially.

“It might have been a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was thinking,” Shelton said. “We need to sit down with them this time and make sure they understand the footprint we are talking about and what information we want back.”

The architects doing the assessment were initially contracted to build a library for the county at the strip mall site, but were never given the green light to get started. The architect, Ronnie Smith of McMillan Smith and Partners out of Spartanburg, said he is not biased toward either site.

“We are going to give the facts to the commissioners to let them make the decision,” Smith said.

Smith said given the new premise of a blank slate on the hill, it could be possible to accommodate a library and parking.

“It gives us a lot more flexibility and it probably makes it more feasible, no doubt about it,” Smith said.

Smith grew up in Sylva, and said he “loves the courthouse and that area just as much as everybody.”

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