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New City Hall gives Buford room to grow

BUFORD - Billing clerk Suzi Philmon is all packed up. At quitting time Friday afternoon, she left her window where for four years she had collected money for new utility services and monthly bills. Monday morning, she will carry her one box of belongings to Buford's new City Hall and set up her things at the drive-through window - something Buford citizens aren't used to.

After 20 years of doing business from the cramped, former post office building on Scott Street, city employees will move Monday into the lavish, 36,000-square-foot, $7.1 million facility at the corner of Hill Street and U.S. Highway 23.

The three-story, brick, antebellum-style structure was designed by Steven Hill of H. Lloyd Hill Architects in Gainesville, and built by Charles Black Construction of Cleveland - the same companies that designed and built Buford's elementary, middle and high schools.

"It was modeled somewhat after this one (current City Hall), with its tall columns and brick," City Manager Bryan Kerlin said.

Four-sides brick, tall white columns on a covered front porch and marble floors served as inspiration for the new City Hall.

For 17 months, local residents have watched the impressive structure rise on 10 acres in front of the Gwinnett County Police Training Center. Massive white columns on the U.S. Highway 23 side stretch three stories high from the veranda floor, past tall, arched windows, to the roof, topped by a distinctive cupola. Inside, a wide, curved staircase leads from the first floor to the second. Public areas are trimmed out with oak, and citizens will walk across green and black granite floors to conduct business.

"We won't know how to act in something like that," laughed Joann Slaton, a lifelong Buford resident.

The first floor holds facilities for government business and training including a new city commission chambers with space for more than 100 guests.

"Sometimes in meetings, people have to stand up," said Slaton, who attends nearly all commission meetings. "The old City Hall has gotten too small for us. We need a new one, especially with all the new people moving to Buford."

Most people will see the first floor where administrative work, like bill paying, will take place - unless they use the drive-through. Map rooms and city workers' offices occupy most of the second floor, as well as an open, loft-style employee break room that looks out over the granite staircase. Besides the drive-through window, the new City Hall has another major improvement over the old - public restrooms.

The third floor, lined with rows of bright, arched windows that open to let in fresh air, remains unfinished, giving Buford's administration room to grow.

"We have addressed our space issues for the next 50 years," Kerlin said.

In all, the new structure will house administration, city commission chambers and offices, planning and zoning, finance and customer service departments and the fire marshal. It holds one main conference room and three smaller ones, eight offices, nine workstations, seven teller windows and a mailroom. About 14 people will work from the new building, whose $7.1 million cost is paid for with 20-year general obligation bonds.

"It's been like building a house, but it's 20 times as big," Kerlin said.

The former City Hall was built in 1940 and served as a post office until the city bought it in 1985. Before that, Buford had operated out of a building across the square since 1924. That building, identifiable by its green roof, still stands.

"It housed a fire and police department, courtroom, jail and administration," said Phillip Beard, city commission chairman.

A walk through the former post office at Scott and Moreno streets during business hours showed desks and chairs wedged into every available space and corner. Beard estimated its size at 4,000 to 5,000 square feet. Stacks of paperwork stood next to employees, chairs and desks. Several times a month, a handful of employees stopped work to move records, maps, even the Christmas tree from the commission chambers in the basement prior to meetings. The building's basement walls are so thick, it was designated a fallout shelter in the 1950s. The "Fallout Shelter" sign still hangs in front.

"We have to be service providers, and we can't do it without facilities," Kerlin said.

Kerlin said city officials have not yet decided whether to sell or keep the old post office.

The new building fits in with Buford's recently approved master plan for future development. The location along U.S. 23 is expected to allow the downtown area to grow toward U.S. 23, joining the two distinct areas.

The new City Hall gives employees a spacious place to work, gives Buford room to grow, and allows residents more convenience while doing business. It also gives Beard something he never had before.

"After serving 31 years on city commission, I'll get my first office," said Beard, who has never missed a commission meeting.