After months of back-and-forth between county commissioners and interested citizens regarding the restoration of the Old Gulf County Courthouse in Wewahitchka, the board unanimously voted Tuesday to take steps in support of seeing the building eventually repaired.
Following about 20 minutes of discussion largely led by Commissioner Ward McDaniel, Commissioner Patrick Farrell made a motion in support of formulating a plan and seeking grant funding and legislative appropriations for the building’s restoration. The motion passed unanimously.
“We need a cost estimate, and some of that’s going to be remediation since we have asbestos and lead paint, but if we can get a cost estimate, then we will be in a position to request money from the legislature,” said County Administrator Michael Hammond at the meeting. “And we’ll need to do that probably by December.”
While the board voted on a motion of support and discussed looking into funding sources, officials emphasized that any restoration efforts for the building would be lengthy.
“The main thing I left that courthouse when we walked through it the other day is that it’s not going to fall apart tomorrow,” Hammond said. “The building’s sound. It’s not leaking. I was impressed by how tight and in good shape the building was… So, we have time to (restore it) and do it right.”
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.
“The day they moved the last filing cabinet out of the old courthouse into the new courthouse over here, which the majority of the voters said that’s what they wanted to do, That’s the day it slowly started going down,” McDaniel said.
The county seat was moved to Port St. Joe in the 1960s, and along with it, the county’s courthouse. Since, the Wewahitchka courthouse housed several organizations and nonprofits before it was closed following the hurricane.
Now, seeing the building restored has become a top priority for several local organizations, namely the Wewahitchka Historical Society.
Ann Johnson, the president of the Wewahitchka Historical Society, said she felt the meeting was a positive step forward in accomplishing the organization’s and the community’s goals.
“It was a really great meeting,” said Johnson. “And everyone seems excited to see some next steps being taken. We are certainly grateful to see movement on the issue.”
Representatives from the Wewahitchka Historical Society had been to speak to the commissioners on several occasions prior to Tuesday’s meeting, largely to voice their perspective about what they perceived as county inaction on the subject.
Last month, Johnson spoke to the commissioners about scheduling a workshop on the subject, which the commissioners ultimately declined to do.
On Tuesday, Johnson was invited to the stand, where McDaniel asked her to gather letters of support from local organizations and members of the community, which will be used to aid the county’s efforts to secure grant or state funding for the project.
“That was our whole intention, to try to aid y’all and do whatever we could do to try to get something going,” Johnson said. “We wanted it to be a positive thing.”
“We will take as many letters as we can possibly get,” she continued, expressing that letters of support can be emailed to her at [email protected], dropped off with her in-person or mailed to Po Box 310, Wewahitchka, FL 32465.
McDaniel also invited Engineer Jack Husband to the podium, where he asked him to coordinate with County Engineer Clayton Smallwood to brainstorm solutions to having the old jailhouse portion sealed off from the restorable main structure.
Despite steps forward, commissioners expressed that they still had concerns about how the building would be used following its restoration.
“We’ve got to look long term – what are we going to do with the building?” Commissioner Phillip McCroan asked at the meeting. “The cost and feasibility of who’s going to run that courthouse and who’s going to pay that fee every year to maintain it needs to be considered.”
Maintenance costs in the past had been as high as $80,000 a year, including insurance costs and utility bills. Though officials agreed bringing the building up to code and removing the back jailhouse portion are expected to lower these costs significantly.
Along with looking into funding options, McCroan and McDaniel encouraged the county to brainstorm ideas for who would occupy the restored courthouse.
“We need to find who that building is going to be a home for, and there’s still a lot to work out in the future,” McDaniel said, “but I think it was a positive meeting, and I think it’s important we get out of the negativity and go forward.”