That has some residents worried the city’s Public Square will no longer be the center of public life.
The Jacksonville Police Department is slated to move to a new public safety complex just west of Walmart, near the city’s southern extreme. School officials, meanwhile, are trying to decide whether to build a new elementary school near the high school, in the same area. And the city’s municipal offices may relocate on the south side of town, too.
City officials are expected to review bids and estimates on the safety complex and determine this month whether they will move the city’s utility and government offices to the new site along with the Police Department.
“To me the square has so much to offer. It’s one of the things that sets Jacksonville apart from other towns,” said Rena Comisac of The Quality Shoppe, a clothing store on the square. “I don’t understand why we want to relocate the heart of Jacksonville to the outer fringes of Jacksonville.”
City leaders are considering plans to turn the current police headquarters on Ladiga Street into a city museum once the department moves. School officials aren’t certain what would happen to the Kitty Stone Elementary School campus just west of the square if it is vacated. Mayor Johnny Smith says he hopes to sell the current City Hall just east of the square if the municipal offices move with the Police Department.
Elizabeth Brown, deputy state historic preservation officer at the Alabama Historical Commission, warned against separating a city’s presence from its historic city center.
“I think fears that this will affect business are reasonable,” Brown said.
Brown said people who come to Jacksonville to pay bills are likely to park along the square and stop in at a local store or restaurant while doing city business. Once that municipal presence, is gone, she said foot traffic for businesses is likely to go down.
“We always try to keep those things in place because of their history there and also to make sure there is still an active presence downtown in these historic places,” Brown said.
Comisac said she thinks their absence would create a vacuum and could leave more buildings vacant in the city’s center, she said.
“No one likes to see vacant buildings. It creates an impression that the town is not thriving,” Comisac said. “It's important to have a presence in the heart of the city.”
While Comisac is worried about the absences that the city might leave if it goes, another business owner on the square is also considering how the change might help merchants.
Jack Limberis, owner of Roma’s Pizza and Steak House, said he thinks the Police Department’s move will help free up parking spaces on the east side of the square,
“I can see the negative, but the positive for us on this side, will be parking. That's something we’ve greatly needed,” Limberis said.
City officials aren't sure how the square would change if the school, City Hall and the Police Department moved into new structures south of the historic square. Some, including Smith, said he thought the impact would be minimal. Others, were less certain.
“I would hope that the previous council thought of that when they selected the location for the new complex,” said Councilman Jerry Parris, of the potential impact to the square.
Councilman Jerry Parris said he thinks moving City Hall could reduce the number of people who travel through the square. However, Smith said he thinks a move would not be problematic. Though many people still hand-deliver their utility bill payments to City Hall, more people are beginning to pay for their utilities without visiting the office, Smith said.
Smith added that he thinks the city’s buildings, if purchased by businesses, might generate their own traffic.
Councilwoman Sandra Sudduth said the council planned to build the justice center at the south end of town to accommodate the city’s growth.
Sudduth said she doesn’t want to move City Hall, but added that she’s concerned about how much it will cost to make improvements to the existing site. It could be cost-effective to move into the new police building because it would save on expenses related to architectural and engineering costs, she said.
“I hope that the citizens are not looking at it like we’re trying to move the City Hall away from the heart of town,” Sudduth said.
Cheryl Morgan, a professor and the director of the Auburn University Urban Studio in Birmingham, said having a municipal presence in the heart of town is critical to its health.
“The city halls, the libraries, the post office, schools, those are the things that really are the gathering places of the community as well as the symbols of the community,” Morgan said. She said the studio helped Jacksonville plan to move its city offices into another historic site — the old Union Yarn Mill building — several years ago. The city has since abandoned that plan, which would have repurposed the historic building. The mill remains vacant.
“Where you want to continue to invest is in the heart of the community,” Morgan said. “In the case of Jacksonville that would probably be that town square.”
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.