Downtown fortress

The existing federal courthouse downtown, which Anniston officials hope will become the new home of City Hall after a new courthouse is built on the current site of City Hall two blocks west. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/file)

Anniston officials say work on a new $42.6 million courthouse in downtown Anniston is on schedule even though the General Services Administration, which oversees the project, is temporarily shut down.

“The GSA is the one agency we have been able to communicate with,” said city planner Toby Bennington.

The federal government has been partially shut down since Dec. 22 as lawmakers and President Donald Trump remain at odds over Trump’s hopes for a $5.7 billion wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. The shutdown came as Anniston officials were working out the details of a land swap that would allow the federal government to build a new courthouse on Gurnee Avenue downtown.

Under the proposal, Anniston would give its city hall building to the GSA — the federal agency that oversees federal buildings — in exchange for the current federal courthouse on Noble Street. The federal government would then tear down City Hall and build a new courthouse on the site.

But the GSA is one of the agencies caught up in the federal shutdown. A contingency plan posted on the agency’s website earlier this week suggests that at least 4,315 of the agency’s 11,171 workers are furloughed until the shutdown ends.

Bennington said he remains in touch with the agency, whose representatives have been working on an appraisal of both the courthouse and City Hall. That appraisal could determine how much money, if any, changes hands when Anniston hands over City Hall.

Mayor Jack Draper said he expects that appraisal to be complete within the next two weeks.

“We’ve had no indication that anything is on hold,” he said.

The Star’s attempts to reach GSA officials weren’t immediately successful.

The timetable of the city hall handover has been increasingly on minds of city officials as the handoff day approaches. The City Council has yet to select a permanent site for a new City Hall, and the council last month voted to rent the top floor of the Anniston Star building on McClellan Boulevard as a five-year home for city offices, at a cost of $275,000 per year.

For demolition on City Hall to begin on Sept.1, the move would have to be underway by July, Draper said. City leaders also expect to have to do some renovation — up to $250,000 worth — before moving in.

The pace of the move was a topic of debate at Tuesday’s council meeting, when Councilman Ben Little opposed the appointment of architect Bill Whittaker to design those renovations.Little said the selection of Whittaker, who’d already been hired for preliminary work on the move, eliminated black candidates from a chance to get the design contract. Draper and other council members said there wasn’t time to open up a search now.

The government shutdown has postponed work on the Freedom Riders National Monument, a National Park Service site honoring the protesters who were attacked in Anniston for trying to integrate interstate buses.President Barack Obama declared two sites — the former Greyhound station on Gurnee Avenue and the bus burning site on Alabama 202 — to be a national monument on January 2017. Federal officials are still working on developing the sites into a full-fledged park.

Bennington said the city hopes to work with the Park Service on a “needs assessment” that would look at the infrastructure changes needed to serve visitors at the sites.

“We’re prepared to get final approval of our plan, but we need to wait until there’s someone to send it to,” Bennington said.

Already the second-longest in the nation’s history, the shutdown seemed no closer to ending Thursday. Trump traveled to Texas to tour the border; according to reports in various media outlets, he said he may declare a national emergency to get the wall built.

In earlier statements, Trump said the military could build the wall — an apparent reference to emergency powers that allow a president to order military construction projects paid for by Department of Defense construction funds.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Birmingham, said a wall project drawn from military funds, if it were built, could affect construction projects planned for Alabama.

Jones said he believed Congress should revisit a bill passed by the Senate before the shutdown, one that would temporarily fund the government while negotiations go on.

Jones said he hoped the president wouldn’t declare a national emergency, saying such a move would be an “overreach.”

“I do think that this is beyond anything we have seen any president do in the past,” Jones said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.