Beaufort News

New City Hall opens Monday with an eye on the future

The new City Hall was bustling with activity Friday morning as employees got settled in and workers put the finishing touches on the building.
The new City Hall was bustling with activity Friday morning as employees got settled in and workers put the finishing touches on the building. Jonathan Dyer/The Beaufort Gazette

After decades of discussion, years of planning, price increases, debates over size and location, design changes, and construction delays, Beaufort's new City Hall opens to the public Monday.

Now, some officials say, the city with nearly 300 years of history has a new symbol for its future.

The 33,000-square-foot City Hall, sitting at the intersection of Boundary Street and Ribaut Road, marks the final piece of a $20.6 million municipal complex and an important step for Beaufort, said former Beaufort Mayor Bill Rauch, who helped lead the project from concept to reality during his time in office.

A building for the city's police and courts departments opened last year on the site.

"For 45 years, the city talked about how it had outgrown its offices," Rauch said. "We finally found a way to make it happen. ... It was long overdue."

City employees spent Thursday and Friday packing and moving from the old City Hall at 302 Carteret St. near the heart of Beaufort's historic district.

The new building, while further from the city's downtown, is more centrally located and sits along what officials call the "gateway to the city" -- an area where Beaufort plans to invest millions in redevelopment and beautification.

It's touted as a 100-year building, with offices for city staff, a large conference room for City Council work shops, other smaller conference rooms and about 6,000 square feet of unfinished "future space" that can be rented or used as the city grows, officials have said.

Two sweetheart-style staircases lead to a City Council chamber on the second floor that can seat about 150 people.

"It's a lot of building for a very small town, but it's one more part of putting in place a vision for Beaufort," said former Mayor Henry C. Chambers, whose legacy includes the landmark Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. "There are a lot who will complain about it, but that will go away in time. There were a lot who complained about the Waterfront Park."

'A LONG-TERM INVESTMENT'

Throughout the planning stages, debates arose regarding the size and location of the complex. There was disagreement about how many buildings it should include and how it should be paid for.

Some of the city council members who made key votes on the project are still serving today.

Preliminary plans had the building slated for a city-owned piece of property on Burton Hills Road.

Rauch credited current Councilwoman Donnie Beer for casting a "courageous" vote that helped ensure the building would instead be built on Boundary Street. Beer voted for the location along with Rauch and then-councilman, now Mayor Billy Keyserling.

"The problem with Billy's vote is he owned property next door," Rauch said. "Donnie just wanted to do the right thing by the town."

Keyserling said his first preference for a City Hall actually was downtown on King Street, but no one else supported that option.

"I voted for (the Boundary Street location) because it was certainly a better spot than Burton Hill Road," he said. "I checked with the city attorney to make sure there was no conflict."

Among the two who voted for the Burton Hill Road location was current Councilman Gary Fordham, who said Friday he didn't remember that vote.

But Fordham said he clearly recalls the debate over whether the new complex would include two buildings or just one. Fordham and then-councilman Frank Glover lobbied for a single structure.

"I still think they should have just built one building, but I can't cry over spilled milk now," Fordham said. "Thank goodness it's finally finished. ... I can't wait to get into it."

For Beaufort resident Nathaniel Bennett, the new building's location is one of its best attributes.

"It's pretty nice, easy to locate and within walking distance," said Bennett, a disabled veteran. "That's important for people like me who don't have transportation."

Lady's Island residents Monica and Andrew Nicholls noted the building's close proximity to the county administrative buildings, which makes it convenient for people to go from one government to the next.

Size was also an issue for Keyserling, who has long said the complex is too large. Keyserling's other main concern was funding.

After a 1 cent sales tax referendum to fund the buildings and improvements to the Waterfront Park failed in 2004, the city council looked for other sources and voted on a mix of tax increment financing bonds, general obligation bonds, the sale of city property and revenue from leased space in the new complex. Keyserling voted against the plan and said at the time he saw "more creative ways of doing it without obligating people to debt."

As construction costs grew, the price of the proposed complex, once projected at $10.5 million, also steadily rose.

In 2007, the council took the issue to voters, who passed a referendum that allowed the city to issue up to $15 million in bonds to help pay for the two buildings and expand its Ribaut Road fire station. The vote helped Beaufort get a better loan rate, officials have said, but it also ensured residents would see their taxes increase to help pay the debt over the next two decades. Beaufort also set aside $5.5 million in cash for the project.

Keyserling wasn't on council at that time.

"I thought we didn't need something that big and thought there were better ways of funding it without a debt mill and accordingly without a tax increase," Keyserling said. "By the time I got elected mayor (in 2008), other than trying to see if we could use some fund balance to put off another tax increase, which we couldn't, there was nothing we could do."

Since the 2007 vote, the city has reacted to the recession by shrinking its budget and staff.

No one could have predicted that the first municipal center-related tax increase in 2009 -- about 14.83 percent -- would come in the middle of the downtown, officials have said.

Nonetheless, it's a long-term investment that should be considered during the building's 100-year-life span, Rauch said.

'IT'S OWN HOME'

Beaufort City Council will hold its inaugural meeting in the new building at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Beer said the opening and new complex "speaks a lot about Beaufort and what we've been able to accomplish."

And while he may disagree with some aspects of the new buildings, Keyserling said the complex sets the stage for redevelopment along Boundary Street, gives police the space the have long needed, will accommodate more people more comfortably for City Council work shops and give council it's own home.

"We'll finally have a council chamber that is ours," Keyserling said. "It's a little fancy, but it's built for the next 100 years. ... Now we have to put the rest of the building to the best and most efficient use we can."

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