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Jail wins stay of demolition in Jefferson County

March 18, 2005|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - The former Jefferson County Jail will stand after all.

Or that's how some Jefferson County Commissioners see it.

After years of debate over whether the old jail at the corner of George and Liberty streets should be torn down, the Jefferson County Commission decided Thursday to pursue a plan to renovate the building and use it for office space.

The commissioners unanimously decided to hire an architect to determine the best way to renovate the jail and to suggest ways it can be used for county government office space.

County Commission President Rusty Morgan brought up the issue of keeping the jail during the commissioners' regular meeting Thursday morning, saying federal grant money could be available to help in the renovation.

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The commissioners have looked at various ways of creating more government office space, and they believe the old jail may help meet the need.

"I think it can be very helpful in solving our problems," said Morgan.

Commissioners Dale Manuel and Jim Surkamp, who voted on the jail issue for the first time Thursday, also supported using the jail for government office space.

Commissioner Greg Corliss, who has supported saving the jail, said the county faces major issues in providing space for judicial and administrative offices.

"We need space real soon for the circuit clerk's office. She's maxed out right now. And the prosecuting attorney's (office) is pretty tight," Corliss said after the meeting.

The county commissioners have considered tearing down the jail since at least 2000 and the commissioners have voted twice in support of tearing down the jail.

Despite those votes, Manuel said he does not believe the commissioners are bound by the decision of a previous commission.

The issue also has been in Jefferson County Circuit Court, where Circuit Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr. once ruled that an injunction stopping the demolition of the jail could not be lifted until the commissioners called for a historical review of the jail.

A historical review of the jail later determined that demolishing the jail would have an "adverse effect" on Charles Town's historic district.

The review also found that demolition of the jail would damage the north facade of the historic Jefferson County Courthouse, which is connected to the jail.

The jail, built in 1918, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the last vote to tear down the jail, which occurred in 2003, Commissioner Jane Tabb and former commissioners James G. Knode and Al Hooper voted to tear down the building.

At the time, Corliss said the old jail could play a role in tourism. But when Tabb cast her vote to tear down the jail, she said one of the most important duties of the commission is to provide adequate government office space "and not to provide a tourist attraction."

Tabb said Thursday she decided to vote to hire an architect to examine renovation of the jail to see about a possible cost. If the cost to renovate the jail "knocks us out of the water," the commissioners could reconsider the fate of the jail, Tabb said.

Corliss and Manuel disagreed.

Manuel said the intent of the action Thursday was to preserve the jail.

"The jail is saved," Corliss said after the meeting.

The commissioners have studied up to four different proposals for building new office space downtown, a project that could cost up to $30 million depending on how the project is designed.

Some of those plans called for tearing down the old jail or incorporating it into a new complex.

On Thursday, Corliss suggested that the architect who evaluates the jail look at all of the county's space needs downtown.

Morgan said he did not believe the architect study should be expanded that far.

The commissioners also discussed Thursday possibly setting some money aside to stabilize the jail.

The money could be used to make roof repairs, painting and repairing trim, said Manuel.

"We don't want the building to go down hill," Manuel said.

A local organization, Jefferson County Alliance to Save Our Heritage, was formed to work on saving the jail, and the organization has held rallies to generate support for its effort. Advocates of saving the jail said it should be preserved because of its architecture and because of a series of trials that were held in Charles Town in 1922 for miners involved in a labor uprising referred to as the Battle of Blair Mountain in southern West Virginia.

Supporters of the jail also say the building should be saved because it is in Charles Town's historic district.

One of the supporters of saving the jail praised the commission's actions Thursday.

"It's been a long, hard fight and it's good to see it come to fruition," Jim Whipple told the commissioners.

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