A year after reopening Pender County courthouse, more problems, expenses arise

·4 min read
A year after the Pender County Courthouse was renovated to repair damages made by Hurricane Florence, officials are still dealing with concerns about the building, namely a lack of space.
A year after the Pender County Courthouse was renovated to repair damages made by Hurricane Florence, officials are still dealing with concerns about the building, namely a lack of space.

After spending many months working out of the Biberstein house in Burgaw, Elizabeth H. Craver was glad to be back at the historic Pender County Courthouse along with other staff members from the clerk's office.

For employees, judges and other law professionals, it's been about a year since they've been reacquainted to the building in the heart of the county seat.

"It's nice to be in a bigger area than what we've been in for the past couple of years," said Craver, clerk of superior court for Pender County. "However, we're still hindered by what we're able to assist the public with because we're not able to have all of our files here."

Due to a weight capacity at the courthouse, those files are being stored across the street.

Pender County Commissioners approved a lease agreement with Burgaw Now to utilize space on West Fremont Street for $3,000 a month. With the addition of utilities, it's expected to cost the county $42,000 for usage between February 2022 and Jan. 31, 2023.

Tammy Proctor, public information officer for Pender County, said the area is secure and the files moved are not accessed a lot. New shelves were added for staff members.

"There's just a lot of records and it's not electronic unfortunately," Proctor said.

The Pender County Courthouse, located at 100 S. Wright St., reopened last summer after it was damaged by Hurricane Florence in 2018. Driving rain and flooding from the storm destroyed the facility. The cost to renovate the building was $6.6 million. More than $1.95 million in assistance was provided by the state, the Golden LEAF Foundation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and insurance reimbursements.

Richard Johnson, founder of Burgaw Now, said the building was leased to store records previously housed at the courthouse. After the renovations, the new plan was to store the records on higher floors.

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"Unfortunately, the weight of the records made that infeasible," he said. "So, they reached out to me and asked to lease again while they developed a new long term plan for record storage."

The county's commissioners hosted an open house and celebration Aug. 6 for the structure built more than 80 years ago.

"We're just happy to be back in this building, regardless of the space needs," Craver said about a growing county. "We like being in this building, so we're just happy to be back here."

During the renovation process, county officials worked to make sure the building was more resilient. Along with repairing storm damage, it also involved upgrading and relocating new mechanical and electrical systems.

"Our goal in this construction project is to make this historic building more resilient and preserve it for future generations," stated Allen Vann, assistant county manager in 2021.

Lead and asbestos abatement was also required for the courthouse, which was built in 1938. Vann also oversaw ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) improvements, plaster work, custom woodworking, a new elevator shaft and courthouse seating. Some of the outside work included brick repointing, sealing, and painting weathered wood around the windows, doors and roofline.

Pender County Courthouse
Pender County Courthouse

Looking ahead

Proctor applauded the work of employees and crews with maintaining the grounds of the courthouse, which is the backdrop of pictures and memories during events such as the annual North Carolina Blueberry Festival.

"It's just very nice to have that back in the heart of the community," Proctor said.

Court officials are pleased to see the renovations, but there are still times when thy have to find other locations to hold court since there's not enough space.

"It's nice being in here, but we still need more to be able to operate," Craver said.

Craver was told an assessment will be conducted to determine the steps required make sure the courthouse stays in Burgaw's town square. An extension or other construction will be more convenient.

"Right now, if the public comes in and ask for a file, if we don't have it here, I don't have enough staff to be sending someone all day long back and forth to pull files for them," she said. "We would have to get their information, go pull the file later, and get back with them when it's here or have it the next morning."

There are also times when a judge needs to see a file, and if it's not in the office, they'll have to stop everything they're doing.

"It's inconvenient, but it could be a lot worse," she said.

Craver added an area public defenders office is also coming to the county, which requires officials to provide a location for it.

"In New Hanover County, they operate, and go in and out of the courthouse," she said. "We definitely don't have room for that here. But my personnel is sitting on top of each other, but I'm OK with it. We're not in a house anymore, I'll deal with it."

Reporter Chase Jordan can be reached at cjjordan@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: After a year of reopening Pender courthouse, storage challenges remain