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City commission overrules Historic Preservation, approves potential demolition of building

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Featured This is the back side of the building located at 617 East Ward Street, as seen from Cleveland Street. At last week's city commission meeting, the commission overruled the Historic Preservation Commission and voted to allow the potential demolition of the building. Robert Preston Jr./DouglasNow.com This is the back side of the building located at 617 East Ward Street, as seen from Cleveland Street. At last week's city commission meeting, the commission overruled the Historic Preservation Commission and voted to allow the potential demolition of the building.

For the second time in less than two months, the Douglas city commission reversed a decision made by the Historic Preservation Commission and voted to allow a building in the historic district to be demolished.



In September, the commission voted to tear down the old Women’s Club building near Emma Ward Park after the HPC denied the request. At last week’s city commission meeting, the commission heard a similar request, this time from First Baptist Church. The church is interested in purchasing the property at 617 East Ward Street from the Coffee County Board of Education, the property’s current owner. 



FBC, however, would buy the property only if it could demolish the structure with the plan to build another building on the site that would be more appropriate for the church.



The building served the citizens of Coffee County many years ago as the Douglas Hospital. In the decades since, it has been a library, the board of education central office, and the alternative school. It was most recently used as the Child Advocacy Center but has sat vacant for the last several years. Currently, the building is in poor shape and Dr. Morris Leis, school superintendent, who was at the meeting, said the school system has no plans to renovate the structure.


Dr. Jim Cottingham was at the meeting on behalf of the Historic Preservation Commission. He referred to the building as an “iconic structure that is very much about the fabric and history of this community.” Built on donated land, the City of Douglas constructed the building, he said. “The Historic Preservation Commission requests that you honor its unanimous decision looking at the historic value of this structure not at the practicality of being used as a structure for a church or a business or a residence. That was not the goal. The goal was to look at the appropriateness of demolishing a historic structure,” stated Dr. Cottingham. 



As he concluded his remarks, Dr. Cottingham added the following statement: “While I’m here, I’ll say that I’m deeply saddened that the Historic Preservation Commission was overturned on September 9 with relation to the Douglas Women’s Club, another iconic structure in this community. The owner of that property is the City of Douglas. Thanks for the opportunity to speak. I appreciate all of your service. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have for me.”



John Day, representing First Baptist Church, stated that the church had a $2.5 million estimate from Charles Lewis Construction to renovate the building. He added that the church is evaluating all the property in the surrounding neighborhood. 



If the church experiences significant growth in the future, such growth could cause problems given the current facilities, said Day. He also said that First Academy, the school that operates in conjunction with the church, is also growing. The property in question could be the site of expansion of the school. “The estimate we have is to reconfigure that building into the same like model that our church currently is. We’re not interested in going in there and doing slight modifications to make it look pretty. We’re interested in making a building that’s in very similar shape to what we currently have. That’s why it’s high. You could go in there with $900,000 and probably come up with a suitable structure — but not a suitable structure for what we would ever use,” said Day.



He also stated that he understands the historical nature of the building. “My father was born in that hospital. So I know it very well. It is a neat building to walk around. But it is not a building that can be renovated to anything of our standards if we were to put a school in that building or children in that building.”

Commissioners discussed the agenda item at length during the work session. Commissioners Kentaiwon Durham and Olivia Pearson seemed against demolishing the building while the others, with the exception of Steve Bailey, seemed in favor of allowing it. Bailey is a member of First Baptist Church and abstained.




When the proposal was introduced to the commission in the regular meeting, no one made a motion either way. Mayor Tony Paulk then made a motion to demolish the building. Commissioner Ed Taylor seconded the motion. The motion passed 4-2 with Mayor Paulk and Commissioners Taylor, Cindy McNeill, and Mike Gowen voting in favor. Commissioners Durham and Pearson voted against.



Commissioners also heard from staff regarding upcoming zoning variance requests. The commission did not take action on this item — it was brought before the commission by staff to let them know what may be coming down the road. Staff is expecting Skoll Axe Throwing, located at 114 East Bryan Street, to apply for an alcoholic beverage license. Establishments in Town Center district must be classified as a pub in order to receive an alcohol license. As such, Skoll is asking to be specified as a pub. 



The other variance involves medical marijuana dispensaries. Currently, a dispensary cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school, church, or early care/education program. However, state law provides municipalities the power to grant variances in relation to the 1,000-foot restrictions. Two pharmacies are expected to request variances for dispensing medical marijuana in the near future.



Commissioners also approved the purchase of a portable stage for the city’s pocket park located downtown. School Outfitters in Cincinnati, Ohio, submitted the low bid of $38,422.97. The city will be responsible for $20,927.97, which will be paid from SPLOST funds. The remaining funds will come from grants from the National Board of Realtors ($7,500), Community Foundation ($9,000), and Walmart ($1,000). 



Among the other agenda items the commission approved were the acceptance of a donation from First National Bank of Coffee County to purchase a Litter Bug mascot and environmental books to educate citizens about the Keep Douglas Beautiful program; JMT, Inc., as the consultant for the Historic Preservation Design Guidelines; the application for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — Airport Terminals grant to assist with future airport projects; and the donation of outdated fire hose to the McRae-Helena fire department.

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