HATTIESBURG, Mississippi — After three years of sitting unoccupied, the old Forrest County Jail in downtown Hattiesburg is getting a major facelift.
David Hogan, president of the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, tells The Hattiesburg American (http://hatne.ws/1MykUOf ) the first two floors of the five-level building are being renovated and will soon house the county's pre-trial diversion, public defender, drug court and veterans' court services.
The move is expected to free up room in the Forrest County Circuit Court building for a newly-created, second judgeship in the 12th District Circuit Court. The new judge will be decided in the Nov. 3 general election. The candidates are former Hattiesburg City Attorney Charles E. Lawrence Jr., former 12th Circuit District Attorney Jon Mark Weathers and Hattiesburg attorney Chad Shook.
If all goes according to plan, officials say the building will be ready to house the relocated services, including about 20-25 employees, by the time the new judge takes the seat in early January.
"Currently, we're upgrading the light fixtures, we've got the air-conditioning units up and running," Hogan said. "We have the water turned back on and we've had the sewer pipes inspected, and we're painting the walls and we'll be doing some flooring."
The new judgeship will ease some of the caseload for Judge Bob Helfrich, who has served as the single circuit judge for Forrest and Perry counties during his 13 years on the bench.
"This (move) gives us the opportunity to put all of community corrections in one building," said Helfrich, who serves a population of more than 87,000 in the district. "It'll all be centrally located."
In addition to restoring the lighting and water services, workers have removed the razor-wire and washed down the building. The old exercise yard on the roof will be covered up, and the blocks in the parking lot will be taken down to create additional parking spaces.
Hogan said renovations will cost about $150,000. There are also plans for the upper two floors, but that may be a little way down the road.
"Right now, we're talking about using those upper cells on the third and fourth floors for storage," Hogan said. "Possibly assigning cell blocks to each department within the county and giving them some storage space."
The jail has been empty since fall 2012, when the facility's inmates, law enforcement and dispatchers were moved to the new Billy McGee Law Enforcement Complex off U.S. 49. Later that year, the board took under advisement four bids to demolish the facility. In April 2013, the board rejected a proposal to turn the jail into mixed-use development.
"Officially, we couldn't get anybody to give us any money to speak of for it," Hogan said. "The bid was in the $200,000 range for that and the Carpenter building — we would have basically have just been giving it away. And taking it down, that would have been in the $700,000 range. So I'm glad that we held on to it and have found a purpose for that space."
Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com