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Smith County Works to Create Downtown Campus

Smith County has been working for the last several years on the “Pay-As-You-Go” Capital Project Master Plan to create a downtown campus of county facilities.

In the last eight years, the master plan has included acquiring and/or renovating downtown buildings to house county departments, resulting in more convenient service for residents.

Shortly after County Judge Joel Baker took office in 2007, the Commissioners Court began discussing Smith County facilities and in 2008, approved the Master Plan.

Renovating the downtown buildings not only helps revitalize downtown, but it also better serves residents and meets the basic needs of the county. Smith County has more than 800 employees.

“We have wisely invested in downtown,” Judge Baker said. “It has been inexpensive, comparatively, to buy and renovate these facilities.”

Commissioner Jeff Warr said the county purchased land as it became available to keep county facilities from being landlocked. As parcels became available, they were able to acquire them with no debt so over the next 100 years, the county will have a campus to expand to fit its growing needs.

The county has invested nearly $7 million in the downtown projects with no debt incurred from the acquisitions or renovations. The projects were paid for as part of the county’s Pay-As-You-Go process.

The Smith County Commissioners Court remains resolved to honor its pledge to citizens to aggressively and purposefully work toward practical, effective and cost-efficient solutions to county issues. Recently acknowledged as a Heart of Tyler Brick Award recipient, Smith County continues to act as a caring community partner by focusing on its long-range planning initiative to identify savings from streamlining and efficiency opportunities. The initiative involves updating, renovating or exiting county facilities that no longer align with Smith County’s mission to provide the highest quality of services to the citizens of Smith County at the very best price.

“All of the work we have done to renovate these facilities has helped in the effort to revitalize downtown Tyler, while creating a better work environment for employees and more convenience for the public,” Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said. “The best news is that all of these improvements were made without incurring any debt.”

Local architect Ron Mabry volunteered his time to help with the vision of the Master Plan very early in the planning phase. Mabry conducted a space study, examining all existing county facilities and talking with elected officials and department heads about their needs. He came up with a 20-year detailed outlook, projecting growth and calculating what the county would need in facilities.

The first priority of the Master Plan was emptying the Smith County Office Building, or former Carlton Hotel, which had fallen in disrepair. The commissioners decided that renovating the building while it was occupied by county employees was not a viable option, and leasing space to house 200 employees while renovating the space wasn’t the most efficient use of tax dollars.

The first step was to find a new location for the Sheriff’s Office. The county decided to renovate the underutilized county-owned Genecov Building on North Spring Avenue. It was made energy efficient while maintaining its historical elements. The building, which includes a state-of-the-art crime lab, includes room for future expansion.  The county also purchased a new 7,721-square-foot evidence storage building for the sheriff’s office.

Smith County purchased the Crescent Laundry Site, including four buildings and additional parking space on 2 acres. “It was our first strategic purchase for expansion,” Judge Baker said. The purchase also paved the way for the Veterans Service Office to move into a newly renovated facility that is more accessible to properly serve veterans.

The Crescent Laundry site on East Ferguson Street is now home to the new Elections Administration Office and the R.B. Hubbard Center, “The Hub,” Constable Precinct 1 Henry Jackson’s Office and the Facility Services Office. All of the new facilities are single stories, offering easier access for the public.

The Hub is a multi-purpose site, offering convenient parking for early voting, as well as a space to hold government and nonprofit meetings and events.

“The elections office and the main early voting location being moved to a renovated building has been so wonderful for our voters.” Elections Administrator Karen Nelson said. “The voters love the easy access of the ground-level building. Each time we have an election our voters compliment the county on having such a nice facility.”

The Veterans Service Office moved to its new facility in April 2013.

“It’s been very nice over here,” Smith County Veterans Service Officer Michael Roark said, adding that it is easily accessible in both parking and walking for veterans.

It is Judge Baker’s hope that the Hub can one day be used for perspective jurors to report to a more convenient, centralized location. That way, hundreds of Smith County residents called for jury duty each week could walk across the street from the jury parking lot for duty instead of more than a block to the courthouse.

Smith County also purchased the former Boots & Saddles Club on East Line Street and renovated the facility to house Adult Probation. The county recently finalized the purchase of the Emergency Operations (911) Center, a building the county leased for several years.

Commissioner Warr said the county has also been working to address the needs for parking for employees and improve accessibility to county buildings.

The County purchased a parking lot from Regions Bank, now used by the probation office. Behind the Sheriff’s building, a dirt lot already owned by the county was paved and fenced and is now used by the sheriff’s department and Annex building employees. Also, the jury parking lot on Spring Avenue once rented by the county has been purchased.

As part of the Master Plan, the Commissioners approved a District Courts Feasibility study to determine the viability for renovating the former Carlton Hotel and associated parking garage to house the District Courts. The study will also estimate the cost for constructing a new facility.

“The last piece of the 2008 Master Plan was to address the Smith County Courthouse and court system space,” Judge Baker said. “That is what this study will do.”

There are no immediate plans to move courts. The Commissioners Court is evaluating all options for the future.

“It makes sense to determine whether the space we already own can be used for county purposes,” Judge Baker said.

Smith County has also been working to renovate and acquire facilities outside of downtown Tyler.

Since 2007, all of the Justice of the Peace and Constable offices have seen substantial improvements.

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