By Russell Hood
The Webster Progress-Times
WALTHALL — Supervisors are awaiting a response from the Walthall Board of Aldermen as to whether it will grant Webster County an option to buy land here.
The village of Walthall, which is the county seat, owns 14 acres of land adjacent to and on the west side of Highway 9 across from Highway 50. The Board of Supervisors requested a joint meeting to discuss the county’s interest in the property, which the village bought in 2008.
Although the supervisors did not initially state that the land would be used for a new courthouse if the county was to buy the property, this was apparently understood by all present. A fire severely damaged the courthouse in Walthall 10 months ago.
The county officials and aldermen met together about 40 minutes Monday night at Walthall Village Hall, with both boards having some questions that remained unanswered when the meeting ended. Those questions included the county’s intention for the courthouse.
The Board of Supervisors repeatedly emphasized that it has not committed one way or the other as to whether it plans to restore the existing courthouse or build anew. Likewise, the Walthall board members never ruled out granting the land option to the county and said they want to work with the Board of Supervisors, but indicated that they need some more information.
Supervisors’ President Pat Cummings asked if the village would be willing to sell the land to the county “if we get to that point.” Paul Crowley, vice president of the county board, said having an option to the land would be helpful.
Mayor Belinda Stewart said the board of aldermen was not prepared to make a decision that night but would take the matter under advisement. “We will do whatever we can to help,” she added.
Supervisors initially said they wanted all 14 acres for the county. When asked why the county would need all of the property when the existing courthouse is located on just one acre, members of the county board said more parking places would be needed and more buildings may be located there if the land is purchased, such as justice court and the jail, and that a new courthouse, if built there, may be one story instead of two.
“We don’t know yet,” said Robert Hitt [District 1). “It would be good to have it all out here together.”
Walthall Alderman Buzz Busby, referring to the relocation of courthouse offices to the Webster County Office Building in Eupora, asked why “(do) you want to put it all together since the courthouse burned.”
Cummings said that option is being explored because the county has never had the opportunity to do so before. “We’re maximizing that (insurance) policy,” he said.
Supervisors were also asked about the availability of a $500,000 grant that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has awarded to stabilize the walls and reconstruct the roof of the existing courthouse. Stewart later informed the Progress-Times that the executive committee of the MDAH board of trustees has also recommended that the board consider additional grant funds after the insurance settlement with the county has been finalized. The Board of Supervisors has taken no action regarding that grant.
When Busby asked if the county does not plan to restore the building, all of the supervisors said they don’t know yet. Cummings stated, “It makes all the difference when you get $5 million vs. $9 million,” and said the county will have to see how it stands once it gets its insurance settlement from the fire loss. He said the county hopes to know about the insurance within 30 days. Cummings also said an environmental study would be the first necessity if the county is granted an option to buy the land.
Stewart said the village bought the land because it is a prime location at the intersection of the two highways. While bringing county services there would be ideal, she also said, “We have a desire to see the courthouse restored.”
Cummings responded, “We’re not to that point yet regarding the existing building until we settle our insurance.”
Stewart said the board of aldermen, as representatives of the community, wanted to know what the county planned to do before it decided. Members of the county board responded affirmatively when she later asked if the county was still looking at the possibility of restoring the courthouse.
However, Cumming also said, “I’ve got to make a decision that’s right for the entire county. I want to look at options. We have not made a decision.”
Hitt said, “Whatever decision we make, you’re not gonna satisfy everybody.”
Stewart said the ideal situation would be for the county to rebuild the courthouse and locate other buildings on the property in question. If the county only needed a portion of the land, she said the board would like to know specifically how much and where because the village may want to keep some for other possible development, and how the county plans to develop it. Stewart said the village could possibly give the county an option to some of the land now and more later.
Stewart said the Walthall board planned to have a recessed meeting later this month and would discuss the matter then. She agreed to provide an offer to the Board of Supervisors by its Dec. 2 meeting. The county board recessed until next Wednesday.
See related article: Courthouse listed among Endangered Historic Places on page 1.