Monroe Journal 

Congress approves $24.3M plan for courthouse renovation

By Ray Van Dusen

ABERDEEN – Since late 2017, an approach to remedy mold issues inside the Thomas G. Abernethy Federal Building has hit its strides and its stalls. Thanks to a joint effort by Mississippi representation in Washington, D.C., a solution was announced last week through a $24.3 million Congress-approved plan to renovate the building.

U.S. Senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith and Rep. Trent Kelly announced the funding in a joint press release Dec. 9 – three years and two days after a community meeting with General Services Administration (GSA) about the need for major building improvements.

“It has taken a whole lot of people working together,” said U.S. District Court Northern District of Mississippi Chief Judge Sharion Aycock. “There is something interesting about the timeline. When the community met in the courthouse on Dec. 7, 2017, I read aloud Judge Davidson’s letter he had sent GSA on Dec. 7, 1992. Then lo and behold three years and two days to the date, we get the funding after all that time. It is almost a painful reminder of how long we’ve had problems at the Aberdeen courthouse and just how slow it’s been in getting these repairs done, but we can rejoice now.”

The building, which is maintained by GSA, was vacated by court staff in late 2017 due to mold and moisture infiltration. A stop order was issued by GSA in January for a $12 million Tennessee Valley Authority utility energy service contract for a complete HVAC replacement and energy upgrades to the building due to an energy payback miscalculation.

Aycock was fearful leading up to last week’s announcement, thinking the funding model may not have materialized between Congress returning from Christmas break and the upcoming presidential inauguration.

“Anytime there’s a change of administration, so many people have to get caught up to speed. Plus they’re in the middle of a huge budget debate. I was so worried we were going to drop through the cracks here,” she said.

Aycock said Wicker, Hyde-Smith and Kelly’s offices were key allies for the progress.

The scope of work for the upcoming project includes HVAC replacement; a building envelope repair; electric, fire protection and life safety upgrades; associated demolition; and hazardous material abatement dealing with mold and lead-paint.

GSA put together the $24.3 million proposal in reprogrammed money, meaning it wasn’t a new appropriation. Aycock said a new appropriation could have taken another three years.

“The money had already been appropriated to GSA but to various projects. The promotion of that idea was GSA saved money from various projects across the nation and could get $1 million here and $1 million there to put together enough money for Aberdeen,” she said.

Congressional committees with authorization and appropriations jurisdiction over GSA approved the agency’s plan to reprogram existing funding to repair the facility, according to the press release.

Last week’s news of the federal building funding took local leaders and citizens by surprise, and they were happy to share their appreciation.

“I definitely want to thank Judge Aycock and all of those who participated in helping for this to come to fruition. It means a lot for our city. From the board, myself and the entire city, we are ecstatic that they worked tirelessly and vigorously to make sure that this deal went through. For that, we are thankful and grateful and proud to have our courts here in Aberdeen,” said Mayor Maurice Howard. “It’s been a long journey, but they made sure they stayed with the task to complete it so we’re forever grateful.”

Monroe County Board of Supervisors President Fulton Ware said the funding plan is a huge accomplishment for both the city and county.

“With everything the government has been going through this year, it’s a huge accomplishment that they worked to get the money for this courthouse. We really appreciate it,” he said. “Now we’re going to be able to keep our courthouse here. Local jobs can stay here, and local restaurants can do business so it will be good.”

“It is persistent people who love Aberdeen who make these things happen,” said Aberdeen Main Street Director Ann Tackett, who also recognized District 7 Sen. Hob Bryan’s help in providing for assistance in the vicinity of the federal building.

Thanks to Bryan, Main Street received $100,000 for the purchase of the former Parkway Hotel across the street from the courthouse. When the project began to take shape last December, Tackett originally said it has potential to provide meeting space for attorneys and clients after the court returns.

An economic boost

With a multi-million dollar project coming to Monroe County, it’s anticipated to have a positive residual impact on the local economy.

“I don’t know personally know of a greater economic boost Monroe County has received in the last several years than a $24.3 million project. What this means for people who lived in the outlying communities who drove in to Aberdeen, the people who live in Monroe County, the people who depended on it – the restaurants and gas stations…I understand what it means to the local economy. It can be life or death of a community,” Aycock said.

Construction on the federal building is scheduled to begin in 2021 and be completed in 2024. However, Aycock has been assured it won’t take that long.

She added the project manager for the Aberdeen renovation is the same project manager involved with a new courthouse in Greenville – a project which was authorized $40.1 million by Congress.

“People in Aberdeen and Monroe County won’t see trucks out there in the next few weeks, but he has the specs ready for the specialized HVAC equipment. The specs are ready for the remodel, the roof, fire suppression system. All of that has been worked on, and I’m glad it was not worked on in vain,” Aycock said. “I hope by late spring you start seeing work trucks and project managers on site to make it happen.”

Monroe County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chelsea Baulch said the impact from contractors on the project will benefit the local economy, in addition to the court’s return in the future.

“You don’t have to ask me at the chamber, just go ask any of the restaurant and shop owners who have seen the affect of the court being gone, and they can tell you,” she said. “Bringing in anyone doing the remediation is outstanding, along with the full intention of bringing back clients, attorneys and judges.”

The 64,000-square-foot courthouse was built in 1973. While the U.S. Postal Service has remained present in the building, the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Marshals Service also vacated the building with the district court.

Aycock expressed her appreciation to the Monroe County Board of Supervisors for making arrangements with the Gilmore Foundation in Amory to lease its facility for office space after services were vacated.

Congressional comments

Congressional leaders shared their enthusiasm of the courthouse renovation project.

“This is an outstanding outcome for the federal courthouse in Aberdeen,” Wicker said in the press release. “This long overdue project will allow the GSA to complete decades of deferred maintenance, ensuring the health and safety of the public and federal workers for years to come. I am glad to have partnered with members of the Mississippi congressional delegation, Judge Sharion Aycock and community leaders to get this project the attention it deserved.”

“The repair to the Aberdeen courthouse means it can become a fully functional federal facility to serve North Mississippi, particularly for the federal judiciary system. I’m pleased with the GSA plan to reprogram existing dollars to undertake this extensive project,” said Hyde-Smith in the press release.

She serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I credit Chief Judge Sharion Aycock and her team for their determination to get this project done and resume public services from the courthouse,” she stated.

“This project will ensure a safer environment for our community and hardworking court officials,” Kelly said in the press release.

As securing the previous $12 million in funding through the attempted TVA partnership for building improvements was unprecedented, Baulch said the support system to see this project through has been as well.

“This is a case study for years down the road of community showing up when called upon and beginning to be an advocate. If it wasn’t for Judge Aycock and others being so vocal and not giving up on this, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” she said.

Baulch noted members of the chamber of commerce board of directors and Aycock’s staff have been in regular communication with the congressional leaders’ offices through the past three years regarding funding for the project.