County adding court space at former Pass It On location

The former site of Pass It On will soon become additional court space for Clay County after the county purchased the property from Community Counseling Services.
Staff Writer

Clay County leaders are putting the finishing touches on designs for a new justice complex that will give courts some elbow room, improve security, and put a vibrant face on a busy downtown retail strip.

"It's going to be nice. Right now, it's tough for any of us to do business. This will change all that," Clay County Circuit Court Clerk Bob Harrell said of the county's plans to turn the old Jitney Jungle/Pass It On building on West Main Street into new county offices.

"It'll make a big difference in terms of space, convenience, security, everything," echoed Sheriff Eddie Scott. "We're looking forward to seeing what they draw up for us," added Justice Court Clerk Harriett Bragg.

The Board of Supervisors approved the deal in late summer and since then, Chancery Clerk Amy Berry, supervisors and other county officials have been working out details of purchasing the 25,000-square-foot building from Community Counseling, which operated the Pass It On thrift store in the former grocery store for six years. Pass It On closed in September and moved to a new location, clearing the way for the county to proceed with an idea that has been discussed for years.

"We've come a long way since the days when we had people lined up out the doors of the courthouse trying to vote, folks struggling to get upstairs to court or to pay their taxes," Supervisors

President Shelton Deanes said. "Right now it's still crowded. When court is in session we've got people parked all over the place. It's not convenient or safe."

"This takes us the next step," Deanes added.

Architects are still working on plans but as of now, the building would house the Circuit Court clerk's office, two courtrooms for Circuit Court, and the Election Commission. The county currently only has one large courtroom and election and related offices are scattered in annex space adjacent to the current old courthouse tucked away at the intersection of Court Street and Jordan Avenue just off downtown West Point.

One of the new courtrooms would seat up to 240 people while the second could hold about 100 people. A third courtroom seating 75 to 100 people would be built for Justice Court. All of Justice Court, including judge's offices, also would get new space in the building.

Sheriff's deputies would bring prisoners to and from court through an enclosed "sally port," which improves security over current conditions.

"For the Sheriff's Department, that is one of the major changes," Scott said. "This gets our judges and our courts together," Deanes noted. "It'll make us more efficient."

It also will pay dividends in ways many people don't consider.

"Our Circuit Court dockets are heavy right now," Deanes said. "We've got people sitting in jail from year-to-year and the local taxpayers are paying for them in the county jail. With two circuit judges operating at the same time and sometimes three, we can get these dockets cleared out and get people either out of jail or on to state prison. That's important to the people of Clay County. It'll help the county all the way around."

The county is buying the Pass It On building for $495,000, a price Deanes calls "a steal."

Supervisors hope to complete the renovations for $3 million, but some estimates have said the project could run upwards of $4 million or $5 million.

"We're shooting low right now," Deanes said of the planning process, which also is leaving room for future expansion.

"Future leaders may have some of their own ideas about how things should be done. We want to take care of now and little down the road without trying to tie people's hands forever," the board president said.

He hopes to have the building open for business by the fall of 2019.

Meanwhile, Chancery Court and the Tax Assessor would remain in the downtown Courthouse, which opened in 1957 after the original courthouse burned.

The Board of Supervisors offices may stay in the courthouse or move to the old Daily Times Leader building just to the south.

The annex to the west of the courthouse currently houses some chancery offices, election materials and other services. It likely would be torn down to make way for parking, which is at a premium when court is in session, and green space.

The county also may buy some other property in the area of the courthouse for parking.

"You almost don't want to come up here sometimes because it's so hard to find a parking place and it's crowded. If it's raining, I won't come," said Sonny Howard, who was in the courthouse Monday checking records.

"I think it's a great idea. It really will just improve the look and professionalism of how the county looks. That's worth something that you can't always put a price on," said Mary Ellis, who says she moved to Clay County five years ago and was paying a tax bill."

In deference to residents who remember the "old days," Harrell says the only drawback will be taking voting out of the courthouse. But he says once people get used to the new location, they'll like the improved access, easier absentee voting and more parking.

While it's not being sold as an economic development tool, the potential impact on the retail community isn't lost on economic development leaders or county supervisors. Sitting at the gateway to downtown from the west, the renovated county building will upgrade aesthetics and attract more potential customers to retailers in the area. The location of the current courthouse and Justice Court building don't have the same benefit.

"It will help generate traffic and business and with that location, give people more options," said Lisa Klutts, director of Community Development for the West Point Clay County Growth Alliance. "It's not just people going to court, it's more lawyers, witnesses, potential jurors. That location will help better connect them to downtown and Highway 45.

"I've seen what it does to down in Columbus and Starkville when court is in session and having active courthouses downtown. We think this can be a pleasant surprise for us," she added. Deanes thinks so, too, and he and others already are considering that benefit in their designs.

"We are looking at matching some of the things Mossy Oak is doing and the rest of the buildings downtown. Making the city and county look better is important, it pays off," he said, noting that other communities have seen businesses ranging from florists and dry cleaners to sandwich shops pop up around their court complexes.

"We'll see what happens down the road. But we think it's going to be good for all of Clay County, an investment we all can be proud of and one for our future," he concluded.