TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Smith County took another step toward finalizing a proposal for a new courthouse.
On Tuesday, Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran briefed commissioners about the results of a public survey and potential sites for the new building.
Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran started his presentation with a reminder that the need for a new courthouse is not a new issue.
“Even 20 years ago they determined they needed a new courthouse, a new facility because the existing facility was not appropriate. They reaffirmed that 10 years ago in another large study,” Moran said.
Despite that need, Moran said a plan has never been given to the public. Results of a recent public survey will help the county determine what a new courthouse could look like.
“That ultimately is our challenge — to give the public best, critically thought and ferreted out decision for them to decide on. This is too big of a decision for these five members to make solo,” Moran said.
Ninety percent of the more than 700 respondents agree a new courthouse is needed and 73 percent said the current courthouse cannot be renovated to fit the county’s needs.
The survey also asked residents where they think the new courthouse should be located. Seventy-seven percent want it to be built on existing county property in the downtown area, while 80 percent say it should stay in the center of the square.
One plan to keep the courthouse on the square would involve closing Broadway Avenue between Erwin and Ferguson streets. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they would support doing that.
"It does involve tough challenges and tough conversations, and I think that’s probably why it’s been hard to get to a point where 20 years later we still haven’t had a formal plan presented to the public,” Moran said.
Some sites under consideration include the center of the square, the west side of the square, the east side of the square and the juror parking area. Other sites mentioned by those who took the survey include the Cotton Belt building and the former Carlton Hotel site.
Moran has said the county plans to hold more public meetings. The issue will likely be on the ballot this November.
The Smith County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, January 21, held its first courthouse planning workshop. The meeting was the first time commissioners were able to discuss as a group the community input received from online surveys and dozens of meetings held throughout the county, as well as begin discussing possible locations of where to build a new courthouse.
Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran gave an overview on information and feedback that has been collected so far from community input. Fitzpatrick Architects and Project Advocates gave presentations on possible site locations for any new courthouse and possible space usage for that facility.
Over the past few months, the commissioners held community meetings in each precinct throughout the county, and Moran has held dozens of meetings with individual stakeholders and public and private organizations.
More than 700 surveys have been submitted, the majority of them by people who have been to the courthouse numerous times, mostly as jurors, attorneys, litigants or witnesses. Nearly 90 percent of the participants answered that a new courthouse was needed to replace the existing 64-year-old facility; and more than 70 percent said the current courthouse could not be renovated to meet the logistical, safety and growth needs of the county.
Nearly 80 percent of the respondents answered that the new courthouse should be constructed on property the county already owns in downtown Tyler; 80 percent said it should remain in the center of downtown; and about 85 percent said they would support the demolition of the current facility. Nearly 80 percent of survey takers answered that they would support the reunification of the square and permanent closure of Broadway Avenue, between Erwin and Ferguson Streets, if necessary.
When rating what factors were most important when considering the construction of a new courthouse, they were ranked in this order: safety and security, aesthetics/beauty, administration of justice, cost, long-term planning for facilities, economic revitalization and proximity to the jail.
Four potential sites on downtown property were included in the survey but after community meetings were held, Moran added two more possibilities to be considered. The original sites for consideration included the west side of the square (where T.B. Butler Fountain Plaza sits now); the center of the square (which would necessitate the closure of Broadway); the juror parking lot on Ferguson; and the Gulf States property off of Line Street.
As a result of public input over the past few months, property on Spring Avenue, south of the jail, and the east side of the square were also added to the list for evaluation. During the workshop discussion in court on Tuesday, several more sites were considered.
Ultimately, two additional sites were added for further discussion: Commissioner Terry Phillips suggested considering an alternate version of the west side of the square and Commissioner Jeff Warr suggested evaluating the county-owned property where the R.B. Hubbard Center, “The HUB,” and surrounding buildings is located just east of the railroad tracks. The court plans to examine those new suggestions in addition to those previously considered, as it works in the coming weeks to narrow the potential sites through further analysis and evaluation.
“Although there is no perfect solution, there is the right solution,” Moran said. “It will simply take a transparent process, working through several iterations of possibilities, and determining what is the best value and investment for the community long-term.” He also emphasized that no location or plan has been decided on and that tough decisions like constructing a new courthouse require tough discussions, take time and involve serious deliberation. “We must continue to be willing to listen and adapt based on the feedback we are getting from the public,” Moran said. "The community has waited 20 years for a courthouse plan to consider, and we need to be sure the plan proposed is the best possible plan.”
Multiple studies have been conducted by the county over the past 20 years and all of the assessments concluded that a new courthouse was needed. Moran has said the intended timeline is to present an initial plan for a new courthouse in the spring of 2020, after which he intends to hold additional public meetings throughout the summer of 2020 to ensure the citizens have full and accurate information and to make any further adjustments to a proposed plan before calling for a vote on a proposed plan for the November 2020 election.
On Tuesday, he said he plans to hold another workshop next Tuesday, January 28, in Commissioners Court to continue to discuss the issue. Moran encouraged citizens to continue to provide input and thought surrounding the discussion as it moves forward this spring and summer.
Citizens can learn more and watch the presentations and discussions from today’s workshop online at www.smith-county.com. Additionally, Smith County has created a landing page for the Smith County Courthouse Planning project, which includes copies of the previous courthouse studies conducted over the past 20 years, and has a Citizen Input Survey that citizens can continue to complete.