Wewa Historical Group, county confront questions over historic courthouse
It’s been almost 1,300 days since Hurricane Michael ripped through the historic Wewahitchka courthouse.
The basement has filled with water, mold and mildew cover the walls, and there’s a gaping hole in the roof of the old jailhouse.
The Wewahitchka Historical group wanted answers.
So, on April 26, several members attended the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners’ regular session meeting to speak directly to the county’s government.
They asked about the status of the building’s repairs and the county’s efforts to see it fixed, an issue the newly formed group has declared one of its top priorities.
“I’ve been before you several times pertaining to the roof at the old courthouse,” said Tom Semmes, a representative for the group who spoke directly to the board. “… I just want to know. What had you planned on doing on working on this hole in the roof?”
The courthouse, which was completed in 1927, has served as a symbol of the Wewahitchka community for nearly a century and was one of the first government structures erected after Gulf County was formed just a few years prior.
The structure was significantly damaged in the storm, but its age was showing prior to Hurricane Michael as well, county officials pointed out.
Commissioner Ward McDaniel pointed out that the hole shown in photos the Historical Group brought to the meeting depicted the roof of the jailhouse addition to the courthouse, which is not original to the building.
Even before the hurricane, County Administrator Michael Hammond said water used to creep in through the eroding grout between the jailhouse’s bricks. Ten years ago, and six years before the storm, the county evacuated their employees from the historical site after testing found the flooding and mold damage to present a large risk to those around it.
“There was six feet of water in the basement. There were all these problems, and we did an expensive test and it said ‘it’s going to kill people. Get out,’” Hammond said. “For ten years, there has not been a county employee in that building.”
At the time, the $6.8 million price tag to have the building restored was not within the county’s budget.
But Hammond went on to say that the evacuation had launched a movement amongst the county’s citizens to see the building repaired, with different groups taking the helm at different times.
Along the way, they determined that the old jailhouse could not be saved.
However, they still remain hopeful that the original courthouse portion can be restored to its former glory.
The portion of roof covering the historical courthouse was the first roof repaired of any county building following the hurricane.
“Probably the best discussion was to tear the old jailhouse off and fill in the old basement,and just save the courthouse – the original square building and the courtroom,” Hammond said. But bringing the building up to code by modern standards is an enormous undertaking.
“We did everything that we could to save the courthouse, but throwing a bunch of money at the back for something that’s been condemned and is growing up with mold would be a waste of taxpayer money,” he continued.
But Semmes pointed out that grant funding could be secured to help fund the restoration.
“There’s got to be a grant out there somewhere for a 100 year-old building, to restore it,” he said. “There’s plenty of money. The problem is finding it.”
Semmes went on to ask if the county would be open to helping the Historical Group apply for grant funding to see some of the necessary repairs to the building made.
“There’s plenty of grants. We’ve just got to find a net and try to catch some for the courthouse and at least stop the rain and seal it up,” he said. “But it’s a shame to just let it sit there and continue to deteriorate.”
“The city has a grant writer and the county has a grant writer. Maybe they can do some research and see if they can help us find some money out there,” Semmes continued.
McDaniel expressed that he was open to participating in meetings with the Historical Group and other interested parties to put together a “game plan.”
“You can’t do anything without a plan,” he said. “If the Historical (Group) would like to get something together, I am 100 percent supportive. I don’t want to see the old original building go anywhere.”
The county and the Historical Group agreed to look into setting up a public meeting in Wewahitchka to get the ball rolling on the project and to begin looking into grants to have the old jailhouse portion of the building demolished and to work on lead and asbestos removal.