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GJAC celebrates 20 years

LAWRENCEVILLE - Twenty years ago, it was the "white elephant" of Gwinnett - a 500,000-square-foot monstrosity that few people admired and many protested.

Commission Chairwoman Lillian Webb remembers the protests more than the dedication of the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center - 20 years ago on Independence Day.

She's proud of the Langley Drive edifice, which was the first project built with county sales tax dollars and was paid for the day it opened. It combined county staff that had been scattered in a dozen or so buildings throughout the county seat.

But because the entire third floor remained empty, built as "shell space" for future growth, many citizens called the building a waste of taxpayer money.

Even though construction was spurred by a lawsuit filed by the district attorney before Webb took office, the justice center was called the county's "white elephant," a phrase meant to mock Webb and other commissioners elected in a Republican sweep in 1984.

"We had a lot of criticism. ... We were criticized for the pretty wooden floors," Webb said. "It was built to anticipate a lot of growth. .... It started filling up. As the county experienced the growth, we knew eventually it would."

Courtroom shuffle

But Judge Warren Davis, who was the county's chief magistrate judge at the time, said he was overjoyed to have a permanent courtroom when the justice center opened.

His office was an old cinder block

building across from the historic courthouse in downtown Lawrenceville. The building, where all the magistrate operations were maintained, was about the size of one of GJAC's courtrooms, and most of the hearings were at night because of the lack of space during the day.

"We would do the hearings in any place we could find a courtroom," he said. "We were pretty mobile at that time. We had to be."

While officials were criticized about the size of the building, Davis said they tried to save money by not making all the courtrooms ready for criminal trials.

In hindsight, he said, that was a mistake, since court calendars are full, and the ability to try defendants is one of the best ways to save money in inmate housing. It has left judges in a similar situation as 20 years ago, shuffling for space.

Expansion under consideration

Today, the justice center is crowded with staffers, attorneys, judges, engineers and more on a daily basis. Officials have renovated the space as many as 40 times, and recently the divide that kept administration offices in one wing and judicial staff in the other has been crossed.

"They envisioned it not being filled for decades," said Davis, now a Superior Court judge. "Nobody had a crystal ball. Now, we're at an expensive fix-it."

The county has opened a new annex for Recorder's and Juvenile Court, converted an office building for a one-stop shop for developers seeking permits and converted a former Wal-Mart for elections office and equipment and record storage.

"We're constantly juggling spaces for additional judges," Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said.

Four years ago, officials discussed the possibility of building another $250 million courthouse, but the cost made politicians reject the idea.

Instead, leaders are considering a $90 million expansion to the building, mostly for courtroom space and for a parking deck, Comer said.

Once again, a one-cent sales tax may be the solution for the space issues. Comer said the Board of Commissioners will likely consider placing the expansion on a project list for a 2009 special purpose local option sales tax, to be voted on in November. Officials will make the decision on the project list in late July or early August, he said.

Chairman Charles Bannister said he hasn't made a decision on using sales taxes for the expansion, but he said the space is desperately needed.

"We have people in every nook and cranny. We spend a lot of money on sorting people out and separating," he said.

"We really need some space, and I hope the folks who depend on certain services up here will understand it," he said, pointing out that even if leaders decided to go the sales tax route for the building, voters have to consider the matter in November. "It's definitely needed. ... I hope people will understand better services can be provided. Hopefully we can get that done."