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Jail razing bids to be sought

December 31, 2002|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Despite pleas by several people that county officials should consider other uses for the former Jefferson County Jail, the Jefferson County Commission Thursday unanimously voted to seek bids for demolition of the building.

The commissioners said their action does not mean the jail will automatically be torn down.

The commissioners are only seeking proposals for what it will cost to tear the building down, which will require another vote if a proposal is accepted, the commissioners said.

But the commissioners were skeptical of attempts to find other uses for the building, citing high costs of renovating the structure at the corner of George and Liberty streets and the problems that would arise if the land is not able to be used for new court space like they propose.

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A group of local residents believe the jail should be saved because of a series of treason trials held at the adjoining courthouse in 1922 for a group of miners involved in a labor uprising in the southern part of the state. The group also says some of the miners were kept in the jail, although the commissioners say there is no proof of that.

The group also believes the jail should be saved because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and because tearing it down and replacing it with modern court offices would not be fitting with a downtown revitalization the city of Charles Town is proposing.

Commissioner Al Hooper, who is a civil engineer, said the cost of renovating the jail would be "very excessive."

There is about 80,000 square feet of space available in the area where the jail sits, but renovating the jail for public use would cause about 12,000 square feet of the space to be lost, Hooper said. If the facade of the jail was left in place and a new building is built behind it, about 8,000 square feet of space would be lost, Hooper said.

"We cannot afford to lose 12,000 or even 8,000 (square feet of space)," Hooper said.

As a way to remember the jail, Hooper proposed that a section of the jail, such as one of the cells, be saved and put in the lobby of the new court building the commissioners are proposing.

Commission President James K. Ruland cited the need for building new courtroom space at the site of the jail. The county needs two additional circuit court rooms, and the current courtroom on the second floor of the historic 166-year-old courthouse cannot be used because of the modern security requirements for new courtrooms, Ruland said.

Ruland said locating new court facilities away from the immediate area would not be wise because the groups of witnesses, bailiffs and other staff that would have to be moved around to support the operation.

Commissioner Jane Tabb said she is concerned about the economic viability of downtown and believes the court system needs to remain there.

"It would be a ghost town without it," Tabb said.

Commisssioner-elect Greg Corliss, who has been supportive of the idea of finding another use for the jail, asked the commissioners to delay action on the jail for six months to give the Jefferson County Alliance to Save Our Heritage and other historical groups time to come up with alternative uses for the jail.

Corliss said perhaps it is possible to turn the jail into a community center similar to the Entler Hotel in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

"I know there is a lot of interest," Corliss said.

Local residents Carol Gallant and Jim Whipple appealed a Jefferson County Circuit Court decision that allowed demolition of the jail to the state Supreme Court of Appeals.

Since the high court made its decision recently, lawyers representing both sides of the case have given different interpretations on how the commission can proceed.

The commissioners have been told that they can proceed with the demolition by taking another vote on the issue. They initially voted to tear down the jail in November 2000.

If the commissioners vote to demolish the jail, Jefferson County Prosecutor Michael D. Thompson said he will have to go before Jefferson County Circuit Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr. to request that an injunction prohibiting demolition be lifted.

Hooper said it will take about 30 days to get bids from contractors to tear down the jail.

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