Bids to be taken for old Lawrence courthouse work

The former Lawrence County Courthouse has been closed since 2013 when a new building was opened less than a block away. The County Commission has restarted discussions about renovating the property. [MICHAEL WETZEL/DECATUR DAILY FILE]

Interior demolition work of the old Lawrence County courthouse could begin as early as Aug. 1, but it could be another three to five years before the building can be opened for county business again, according to a construction manager and county commissioners.

Kelly Howard, construction manager with Martin & Cobey Construction Inc. of Athens, said a pre-bid meeting with interested contractors took place Tuesday, and sealed bids would be opened July 20. County Administrator Heather Dyar said the commission plans to conduct a special meeting July 21 to accept the lowest qualified bid.

“There’s been quite a bit of interest in the project,” Howard said at a work session Wednesday. “Six contractors have reached out about the project.”

Once the lowest bid is approved, the contractor would have 90 days to complete removing and repairing parts of the interior.

“It will likely be finished in about 60 days,” Howard said.

He said the old courthouse has severe black mold and asbestos issues and anticipates the low bid to come in between $400,000 and $500,000.

“We had an estimate of about $380,000 before we found additional asbestos,” he said.

Plans are to use the old courthouse on the downtown Moulton square, originally built in 1820 and rebuilt in 1860 and 1936, as the courthouse annex to house commission offices, the industrial development board, the county archives, United Way and offices for the commission on aging and the coroner.

Preliminary plans show commission offices and the IDB board locating on the first floor. Commission chambers, archives and other offices would be on the second floor. The third floor would remain closed, and the basement would be used for storage.

Howard said the winning contractor will take out everything that is not load-bearing. He said at least three roof drain pipes inside the brick walls are cracked, and water is entering the old courthouse.

“We took up the flooring and found more asbestos tiles that have to be removed. The heating and cooling system hasn’t been on in several years,” he said. “Plaster is coming off the walls. It’s moist in there. In 90 days, the building will be cleaned and air-tested. Nothing will be in there.”

He suggested the county wait before beginning renovations because lumber prices have soared during the pandemic.

“Lumber prices will come back down some,” Howard said. “The problem has been there’s been nobody who wants to truck it. Labor is hard to find. It has caused OSB (half-inch chip board) to go from $8 a sheet last year to $48 now.”

Discussions about the renovation work have been going on for years. The old courthouse closed in 2013. In 2015, the commission shelved plans because of budgetary restraints, but the project appears more viable now.

District 4 County Commissioner Bobby Burch believes the county is back on solid financial footing.

“We’ve got some money saved from where we’ve made tough decisions over the past several years,” he said. “All department heads are doing a super job staying under budget. In the past, we’ve had to rob Peter to pay Paul. Now, nobody’s being a Paul.”

The county went in a deep financial spiral in 2014 when International Paper in Courtland closed its doors and took 1,100 jobs with it.

Burch cited refinancing a bond issue, online sales tax revenue, an increase in solid waste revenue and careful money management as allowing the commission to once again tackle the old courthouse renovation.

“It’s hard to say when we might start on the interior renovations,” he said. “The price of materials needs to settle down. But I’ll be surprised if we’re not in by three years.”

He said a portion of the American Rescue Plan Act money could be used in the renovation. Lawrence County received $6.4 million from the federal program.

District 1 Commissioner Jesse Byrd said pumping life into the old courthouse would benefit downtown businesses.

“I’d like to see us back downtown and all under one roof,” he said. “It would help bring business and more foot traffic downtown.”

The parking lot at the new courthouse, which opened in 2013 on Market Street, would accommodate the vehicles at the courthouse annex, Howard said.

Commissioners said the current annex building on Alabama 157 would be sold once the renovation work at the old courthouse was completed. They had no estimate on a sales price. 

The former Citgo gas station on Alabama 157 across from the annex sold at auction in June 2017 for $375,000.

Historical records show the first courthouse at what has become the downtown Moulton square was a log building with a fence around it. It was erected in 1820.

Sometime between February and April of 1859, the courthouse burned. A new courthouse was built on the square and opened in March 1860. During the Civil War, the courthouse was used for a hospital. The courthouse was taken out of service in 1936 and the current limestone building constructed.

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