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Historic Courthouse Soon to Become “Economic Development” Hub and Event Space

Photo by Lydia Berglar – As the end of a lengthy renovation project draws near, plans for Dade County’s historic courthouse include having the gallery available to rent (pictured here in the first week of January). The bottom floor will serve as a hub for economic development entities.

News Editor

The latest reports indicate that Dade County may soon see the completion of the historic courthouse’s long-lasting renovation project. In October 2023’s county commission meeting, Blevins Construction Management (BCM) anticipated completion of the project by the end of the first quarter of 2024. In early January, Don Townsend (county clerk and CFO) and Ted Rumley (county executive) reported that current progress is still on track for completion before March.

The Sentinel asked Rumley and Townsend how the courthouse will be used. Discussing the first floor, Townsend said, “It’s kind of like an economic development hub.” The two entities of the Alliance for Dade (the visitor’s center and the chamber of commerce) will each have a room next door to each other. The current space used by the Alliance is rented, so the county will no longer have that expense.

A gift shop will also be added across the hall from the Alliance. Townsend mentioned the Friends of the Library Christmas ornaments as an example of what would be sold in the shop.

The Industrial Development Authority (which has not had a dedicated office space before) will have an office on the first floor. Townsend explained, “The IDA secretary and treasurer has always carried documents around because there was never a place to put them. This room has a vault, so we’ll put filing cabinets in there for the IDA records.”

Townsend and Rumley noted that once reestablished, the City of Trenton’s Downtown Development Authority will be welcome to meet in the courthouse, but they anticipate that DDA headquarters will be in City Hall.

Townsend explained, “The DDA and the IDA are two different groups, but they sometimes might work on projects together in conjunction with the Alliance. Thinking about those three, they’re trying to get business here, tourists here, and expand services that draw people to Dade County, so they all have an economic development purpose. They’re already partners; we’re just trying to get all the partners in the same facility together.”

The first floor will also have space for the Dade County Historical Society and Trenton-Dade County Historic Preservation Commission, along with archives. Townsend said, “The northwestern room also has a vault where we can store some documents that don’t really fit in any clerk’s vault, plus any other old documentation we want to maintain.”

To make the building ADA compliant (Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design), one office became part of the elevator shaft, and another became an ADA compliant restroom.

The second floor is mostly filled by the old courtroom, which the county plans to rent out for events. Townsend and Rumley reported that regulations and fees for the space are not in place yet, but they anticipate it will work similarly to the senior center’s process. They reported that the space can hold roughly 150 people per the fire code.

What used to be the judge’s chamber is being turned into a warming kitchen. According to Townsend, “A caterer could come in on the ground level and bring the food up the elevator straight to the warming kitchen. From there, there’s a door into the old jury room where they can stage the food and then serve the guests.”

To be equipped with audio/visual equipment, the jury room will also function as a meeting room.

Rumley added that the county plans to hang historic photographs on the walls. He said that people whose ancestors were married at the courthouse often want to visit the building.

Townsend explained a long-term vision to add displays on the second floor that would showcase local culture and history and rotate through exhibit themes. “In time, we hope to add museum-type cases on both sides of the gallery.”

Through the Historic Preservation Committee’s fundraiser, the windows have been replaced, with a plaque noting the family/entity that sponsored each window. Townsend reported, “[The fundraiser] was very successful. We broke even on the [cost of the] windows.”

He added that other bids have come in under the budgeted amount. “Everything’s been coming in under what was estimated, which is surprising since inflation has been so bad.”

After the county attempted the project alone, they hired BCM in October 2021 who helped develop the budget. Townsned said, “We love that BCM is local and takes pride in the building. Cole Adkins is one of their main guys and he’s helped tremendously. He’s constantly in touch with me and Ted.”

The total bid amount is $1,809,006, with the following breakdown:

  • Construction Costs: $1,527,137
  • General Conditions, Insurance-General Liability, GC Bond, OH&P: $76,880
  • Contingency: $118,846
  • BCM Fee (5%): $86,143

The county plans to have someone specifically in charge of managing the event/rental schedule. Rumley said, “The buck will stop with the commission always, but there’ll be someone to take care of the events, scheduling, and all that.”

Because the Alliance will be in the building, the hotel-motel tax can legally be used to cover the courthouse’s operating expenses.

The county also plans to add handicap/caterer parking at the north and south ends of the building (between the road around the courthouse and the sidewalk). The elevator is at the south end, so that will be the most convenient handicap parking.

Townsend reported that he recently notified Alex Case (Trenton mayor) about a state grant to fund lighted pedestrian crosswalks at the square and potentially cover needed adjustments to the curb. (Accessible ramps are currently located at the corners of the building, instead of at the crosswalk.) He hopes to receive that grant.

Townsend noted that aside from an unanticipated roof leak, progress continues steadily. The plumbing and landscaping are both completed, the electrical and HVAC work is very close, and work on the floors and walls continues.

Transoms above each door were covered by the drop ceiling, but they have been uncovered and will be restored. Townsend explained that the county/BCM/HPC hoped to use the original ceiling, but it was cheaper to install an identical-looking ceiling about one foot below the original (leaving space for conduits and wiring).

BCM was able to reuse the original doors (with new hardware), much of the original woodwork, and all of the original floors. Chandeliers will be in each room, but all lighting will be LED.

Regarding the historical value of the building, Rumley said, “It’s irreplaceable. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, like a lot of our historical buildings that’ve been torn down and you think, ‘Why’d we let that happen?’”

Townsend added, “The courthouse is simply iconic to Dade County. It’s something to be able to take your grandchildren to, a place where maybe a person served on a jury or their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were married there.”

It is safe to say that the Historic Preservation Committee and the county commission will be thrilled once the project is completed, and hopefully, interested citizens and tourists will be delighted to finally see the renewed interior of the courthouse.

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