Latest plans spare library
Courthouse to be built west of old school
By Geoff Pender
The Sun Herald
GULFPORT — The Gulfport Public library and most or all of historic Gulfport High School will be spared in the federal government’s latest plans for a courthouse downtown.
Library supporters, who have lobbied for months to stop demolition of one of the busiest libraries in the state, consider the decision a victory and an example of the power of public consensus.
“All’s well that ends well,” said District Attorney Cono Caranna, a longtime library supporter. “I think it demonstrates once again that decisions reached with public input are superior to those that don’t have that benefit. I think everybody has learned from this. It was a good drill for the community.”
The federal General Services Administration — and most local elected leaders involved — said months ago that tearing down the library appeared to be the only realistic option for a courthouse site. But library supporters rallied against the plan. They lobbied city and county officials, who in turn lobbied Coast congressional leaders, to pressure GSA to look for other options.
“We had always said we were going to listen to the public,” GSA spokesman Thomas H. Walker said Wednesday. "they probably don’t realize it, but taxpayers do get their money’s worth from us a lot of times.”
Instead of tearing down either the school or library, GSA hopes to build a six-story courthouse on the campus to the west of the old high school. The agency plans to buy the school-house and renovate it into offices for the U.S. Attorney and probations workers. The new plan would require the city to close off part of 21st Avenue and donate it to the project.
“If that’s all they want from us to preserve the library, preserve the heritage of our old school and get a new federal building,” said City Councilman Sam Albritton, “then it’s a done deal.”
GSA will now begin negotiations with the Gulfport School District and several private property owners to buy the land it needs. The school district is willing to sell the old school property, but GSA needs to buy more private property around the school so that it will have 6 acres for the courthouse, offices and parking.
If negotiations with private property owners don't work out, GSA might try to buy the B. Frank Brown Gymnasium and administrative offices on 15th Street from the school district. Superintendent Carlos Hicks said the district will build a new gym no matter which property GSA buys. The district has for years wanted to build a gym at its new high school campus.
GSA hopes to award a contract to build the courthouse by November and complete the project before its leases expire in 2003 on buildings in Biloxi and Gulfport.
Walker said that Gulfport Mayor Bob Short has been working with GSA on its new plan.
“It’s been a very long, hard road,” Short said. “But I think this shows we can all work together for what’s best. That’s what the city plans to do, have public input in all our plans, whether it’s for the courthouse, waterfront development, the master plan for parks.”
The 77-year-old schoolhouse, state and federal preservation officials say, is historically significant and should be preserved because of its architecture. Library supporters agonized at the thought of losing their 34-year old building, the headquarters for the Harrison County Library System, overlooking the Mississippi Sound and downtown Gulfport.
"it would just have destroyed one of time greatest assets on the coast,” said gordon burton, library board chairman.
But library officials hope the community solidarity for the library can he put to good use.
“Hopefully, this ordeal will provide the motivation to restore the library to its original elegance,” said Robert Lipscomb, director of the Harrison County Library System. "this whole episode raised the visibility of the library in the community."
Staff Writer Melissa Scallan contributed to this report. Geoff Pender can be reached at 896-2329 or at firstname.lastname@example.org