The Georgia Trust

PRESERVATION ISSUES

Funding the Diverse Needs of City Halls

It certainly wasn’t the prettiest building in town. Once the center of commercial activity in the city of Monticello and Jasper County, the Benton Supply Company had definitely seen better days. For the past 25 years, it had sat abandoned, taking up half a block of downtown. In the early 1990s, the only sign of life was the flourishing branches of trees pushing up through the roof.

Monticello City Hall, a former department store

But the City of Monticello saw potential in the old eyesore. The city hall staff needed a roomier space than the small fire station they were housed in, and was determined to maintain their convenient downtown location. And so, the city decided to take on the challenge of rehabilitating the space for a “new” city hall.

To accomplish this goal, Monticello secured more than $1.5 million in federal and state grants, including funding from the Department of Natural Resources’ Heritage 2000 Grant, the Department of Community Affairs, Scenic Byways and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Most importantly, the community poured in its support. “We did everything from bake sales, dinners, auctions, grants, donations and the city even issued a bond,” says Monticello Mayor Susan Holmes, who is also a Georgia Trust trustee. “We were very aggressive in asking for help.”

First visualized in 1996, the project was completed in late 2001. The 28,000-square-foot complex now houses the City Hall, the State Department of Family and Children’s Services, the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Authority and a museum and visitors’ center. It quickly became a catalyst for further revitalization in the town of just over 2,000 citizens, said Mayor Holmes. The county is now restoring the courthouse across the square, and almost all the downtown building owners have spruced up their facades.

“The citizens’ attitudes have changed in the last few years,” says Mayor Holmes. “They are proud of the changes they’ve seen downtown. This is a fabulous example of what can happen when people work together.”

To recognize the tremendous impact this project had on its community, The Georgia Trust awarded Monticello the first Marguerite N. Williams Award in 2002, given to a rehabilitation or restoration project Trust officers determine has had the greatest impact on preservation during the year.

Cities around the state have seen similar success by preserving their downtown historic resources, especially traditional downtown anchors such as city halls and courthouses. City halls serve as centers for municipal activity, often including such functions and services as planning and zoning, supervisor of elections, utilities and tax assessors. These functions regularly bring residents to the city hall to take care of business.

Braselton City Hall, a former home

However, a recent study conducted by the Office of Jack Pyburn, Architect estimates there are 158 historic city halls in the state and, like courthouses, more than 50 percent are currently in poor or fair condition. The study estimates the statewide cost of $130 million for the rehabilitation of the historic city halls at an average cost of $800,000 per building.

Organizations including the Historic Preservation Division (HPD) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) and The Georgia Trust are taking an active role in spreading the word on the need and seeking funding for these important rehabilitation projects.

GMA, the nonprofit organization representing municipal governments in Georgia, is supporting initiatives to rehabilitate historic city halls and courthouses through a state matching grant fund. “We recognize that the rehabilitation of historic buildings, especially city halls and courthouses, is essential to the economic development and enhanced vitality of our communities,” says Gwin Copeland, associate general counsel for GMA. Ms. Copeland reported that the Georgia Cities Foundation recently amended its guidelines so it can make loans for the purpose of “assisting in the rehabilitation of historic government buildings when these buildings serve as important downtown anchors.”

Duluth City Hall, a former church

“The daily flow of residents and employees housed in the city hall provide a strong base of consumers for businesses located adjacent to the city hall,” says Glen Bennett, senior director of preservation services for The Georgia Trust. “When located in the downtown area, a city hall serves as a central component of the downtown’s economic development foundation.”

Not only are city halls often one of the most vibrant places of business downtown, but many are also housed in significant historic structures that have played important roles in the cities’ histories, and serve as a symbol of the community’s heritage.

Unlike county courthouses, whose imposing presences are immediately recognizable, city halls are usually housed in smaller structures of widely varying types. Often, these structures were originally built for other purposes, such as the Duluth City Hall, which is located in a historic church, or the Braselton City Hall, located in a Neoclassical-style home built by the first mayor of the city. Not surprisingly, structure sizes and architectural styles run the gamut, from the grand Beaux Arts Savannah City Hall (originally built as
a courthouse) to the modest former firehouse and jail in downtown Barnesville.

Waycross City Hall, a former YMCA hotel

City halls also seem to change locations as their cities grow. Historically, cities have looked to other, unused downtown structures when they needed more space. In Atlanta, the city outgrew its main city hall, so it also houses offices in a former Sears & Roebuck building, which it calls City Hall East. Post offices, many of which moved out of downtowns, have been popular choices for city halls in Valdosta, Americus and Commerce. Another commonly used structure is a former bank building, used for Macon City Hall and the Hahira City Hall and Police Station. In Waycross, the city hall was originally built in 1907 for a YMCA hotel. The city acquired the building in 1917 for use as the city hall and rehabilitated the building in 1983 to accommodate the operational needs of city government. Likewise, the historic Jaeckel Hotel in Statesboro was rehabilitated and adapted to serve as the Statesboro City Hall in 1997. City halls in Tifton and Kingsland are also located in historic hotels.

“The exception is to build an elaborate building just for a city hall,” says Steve Storey, manager of design services for the Department of Community Affairs’ Rural Development Division. “In many cases the city can acquire an existing building such as a former bank or post office. A bonus is that those buildings usually have an institutional look that’s appropriate for city hall.”

While the costs and time associated with rehabilitating historic city halls are often daunting, they are generally less than needed for a new equivalent building. Mayor Holmes offers a little advice to other towns: “If we can do it, anyone can. We started out with no knowledge and no money. You’ve got to be passionate about your project. Every city has some wonderful building downtown. We’ve learned that preservation is economic development.”

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