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Federal courthouse renovations may not be so costly for Anniston, in spite of growing council concern

Federal courthouse

The federal courthouse building at the corner of 12th and Noble streets in Anniston. The city of Anniston would get the building and $520,000 in a land swap with the federal government, which plans to build a new courthouse on the block where City Hall stands now.

What does it cost to renovate a federal courthouse?

It’s a question Anniston City Council members have asked in recent weeks, as a land-swapping deal with the U.S. General Services Administration nears its closing date next month. The old courthouse on Noble Street will become city property after the GSA finishes a new federal courthouse on Gurnee Avenue, the block where City Hall still resides for at least a few more weeks. The plan has been for Anniston to move City Hall into the old courthouse, once federal offices have been emptied.

But Councilman Ben Little has noted in recent meetings that the city has made no assessments of the property, or learned what the move might cost, especially if the site needs renovation or remodeling. The city will get $520,000 as part of the GSA deal, the difference in value between the current City Hall and the old courthouse, but Little expressed doubts during the last council meeting that the money would be enough to settle the city into the new space. 

The City Council will again discuss the issue during its meeting Tuesday night, though apparently without new information since the issue was last raised. City officials said Monday that they have yet to consider investigation at the courthouse, with their attention focused on moving City Hall from Gurnee Avenue to a wing of the Consolidated Publishing building on McClellan Boulevard. Consolidated is the publisher of The Anniston Star.

“We can’t really comment on that right now,” said Steven Folks, interim city manager. “I haven’t had the chance to wrap my head around what we’re going to do yet, and I don’t want to speculate.”

“There’s been very little discussion, staff-wise, about the current courthouse,” said Toby Bennington, city planner. “The focus has been on the move itself and preparing to vacate Block 148,” he said, referring to the block where City Hall is now.

Making the courthouse office-ready may not take an outlandish investment, according to Caleb Campbell, an owner of Campbell Development in Gadsden. His company bought a federal courthouse on Broad Street in downtown Gadsden in 2016 for $470,000, four years after the GSA had abandoned the site. 

The roof leaked water, which in turn damaged interior walls, Campbell said. The company replaced the walls inside, upgraded the air conditioning and changed the floor plan of the building to suit incoming tenants. 

Now the former courthouse is nearly full of offices, including those of U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, the Red Cross and Blue Cross Blue Shield, among others. Campbell said about $450,000 had been spent on remodeling. 

“If the building is already in good shape, you don’t have to do that,” Campbell said. 

The courthouses were constructed at almost the same time, Anniston’s in 1906 and Gadsden’s in 1910. They appear to be similar from the outside, with the same basic facade structure with minor aesthetic differences. The Anniston courthouse is about 27,426 square feet, though, while the Gadsden building is 37,145, according to Campbell. Attempts to reach the GSA to compare the two buildings were unsuccessful Monday. 

Both courthouses are registered as national historic landmarks, but Campbell said there were few restrictions to follow in redesigning the interior. He wrote by text message that only certain parts of the building had to remain unaltered, like marble stairs in the courtroom and the exterior of the building. Interior walls could be changed as needed. 

He said that regardless of whether Anniston’s City Hall moves into the building, the courthouse shouldn’t be left to languish. Water damage had been destroying the Gadsden courthouse for years, he said, even while tenants on lower floors still worked there. 

“The government quit allowing tenants to come into the building,” Campbell said. “Nobody knew what was happening for a while until it was really damaged. It just destroys a building.” 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.