The Habersham County Board of Commissioners have deferred a decision on what to do with the old county courthouse. The commissioners were to vote on a memorandum of understanding that would have sold the property to a local developer for $10. Instead, they voted in their Monday night business session to table the issue.
The memorandum of understanding is part of a redevelopment plan for downtown Clarkesville presented to elected officials by developer Lew Oliver. In exchange for essentially giving him the property, Oliver agreed to invest $6.5 million to revitalize the old courthouse building and grounds.
Commissioner Bruce Harkness was the first commissioner to voice strong opposition to the plan.
‘I’ve had many, many taxpayers say they’re against it because this looks exactly like what the former commissioners did with the hospital when they basically gave away our hospital,’ he told Now. Habersham, referring to the settlement the county reached with Northeast Georgia Health System in 2018.
Other deals for the former courthouse property have fallen through, adding to the sense of urgency to move forward. The building is decaying and in need of a new roof which Habersham County Facilities Manager Mike Bramlett valued at $100,000. Still, the ’60s-style yellow brick building sits on prime real estate and there’s potential value to that for ratepayers, according to Harkness and others.
“This property is worth $1,240,000,” says former attorney Doug McDonald, citing figures he says he got from Oliver’s redevelopment plan. “Why give it to him for $10?” »
The commissioners heard from two potential investors – Shad Hill and Jeff Higgins – who expressed an interest in acquiring the property. They say they are interested in eventually making it an upscale seniors community for people 55 and older.
Higgins and his wife operate Graceful Care, an assisted living and retirement community in Clarkesville.
“It’s a need that exists in this community and that continues to grow. We look at this [the old courthouse] as another place where we could grow this business and keep it with the look of the community.
Although the commissioners withdrew the memorandum of understanding from the agenda of their regular meeting after tabling it during the working session, some of those who came to speak on the subject nevertheless had their say. Former Habersham County Republican Party chairman Carl Blackburn urged the commissioners not to go to just one developer.
“We don’t need to pick winners and losers. That’s not what we do,” Blackburn said.
The tabling of the measure gives the Commissioners time to have the property appraised and develop Requests for Proposals (RFPs). These applications could require interested developers to describe their objectives for the property and would also take into consideration things such as the impact of a development on the tax base and job creation, as well as the time it would take to build the project.
“All of these things we might want to know to make the best decision on what to do with the property,” says Habersham County Executive Alicia Vaughn.
Pickelball 3, Tennis 2
As county officials take more time to consider what to do with the old courthouse, they are moving forward with plans for pickelball courts.
Commissioners voted 3-2 on Monday night to contract with a Woodstock-based company to resurface two of the county recreation department’s four tennis courts into six pickleball courts. The project will cost county taxpayers $88,738.
Commissioners Bruce Palmer, Ty Akins and Bruce Harkness voted to approve the resurfacing project. Commissioners Dustin Mealor and Jimmy Tench voted against.
The vote drew applause from pickleballers who gathered at Monday night’s meeting to make another county court appeal – something they’ve been pushing for since last year.
“We have a lot of new players and it’s only growing. I mean, we’re running out of room,” says Jane Childs, who was among those happy with the committee’s vote.
The loss of two lighted courts is a disappointment for the county’s tennis players, many of whom until recently had the false impression that the county was going to build a new pickleball complex (this project was canceled due to cost). When they realized the county was planning to reduce the number of tennis courts available to them and their children, they circulated an online petition and collected about 500 signatures.
Even that, however, was not enough to sway the commissioners. The writing appeared to be on the wall on April 6 when county public information officer Carolyn Gibson sent a “PSA” to the public outlining the availability of tennis courts in towns and at county schools.
“Habersham County strives to provide solutions for all citizens and to ensure that all public facilities are used to their fullest potential,” the public service announcement reads. “As a result, the Habersham County Board of Commissioners is pleased to announce that many public facilities in Habersham County outside of the Ruby C. Fulbright Aquatics Centre, including tennis courts, are now available. ”
Tennis players point out that not all of the courts the county is trying to direct them to are in good repair, lighted or always accessible to the public.
“This discussion is not about pickleball versus tennis,” said Paula Wonders, a tennis mom who has become a leading voice against the resurfacing project. “It’s about conserving resources rather than losing them.”
Wonders and other tennis players and supporters have offered to help raise money to pay for new pickleball courts. But, in the end, it was the marshals who lobbed the last end. Now, with the arrival of new grounds at the Department of Recreation and Mary Street Park, Habersham will likely be home to eight pickleball courts and two less tennis courts by the end of this year.