To meet the demands of a growing population, the Lee County Courthouse will receive a $9.9 million expansion.
Site prep has already begun on the corner of South 10th Street and Avenue A in Opelika on a parcel to the rear of the courthouse where a three-story annex building will be constructed. Once complete, the annex will house the Revenue Commissioner's Office on its second floor and the county Appraisal Office on its top. The first level will be parking.
County Administrator Roger Rendleman said the project has been in the works for about three years — ever since the county did a master plan of its facilities in the downtown area — and is a response to the growth of Lee County.
"With the size the county has become, it's a functionally obsolete courthouse," he said.
In 1990, Lee County's population was recorded at just more than 87,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the 2010 census, the population had jumped to more than 140,000. Population projections from 2016 estimate the county's population at almost 160,000.
"You can just see how quickly it is growing, and of course, you see all the time where our area keeps popping up on lists as far as business and this, that and the other," Rendleman said. "This area isn't just anchored by the university anymore. It's still a big part of it, but the success Auburn and Opelika have had reeling in these big-job manufacturers, especially being high-tech, brings a lost of interest into the area."
The expansion project will also include the demolition of the old sheriff's office and jail building, which is attached to the backside of the courthouse. In its place, the courthouse's rear entrance will receive a face-lift to mirror the front entrance.
Once the Revenue Commissioner's Office is moved into the new annex, the Probate Judge's Office will have room to spread and will likely take over the entire right side of the main floor of the courthouse. Then, the current County Commission Chambers on the first floor will likely be redone to become a courtroom for the Probate Judge, and room on the courthouse's second floor will be renovated to house the commission.
"If you ever come to (a commission) meeting and you have any issue that draws any real interest, it doesn't take long to fill that room up," Rendleman said. "That's why we're just going to convert the Commission Chambers to more of a Probate Courtroom, and we'll use that big, wide space on the second floor to make Commission Chambers that are a little more appropriate for a county our size."
The construction of the annex and rear entrance upgrade will likely take about 18 to 24 months, Rendleman said. To pay for the project, the county took out a 15-year private placement loan for $6.5 million. The remaining $3.4 million is being paid with cash.
While construction is ongoing, Rendleman asks residents to "pardon our progress."
"Once it's done, you'll have a much nicer facility and something sized more towards what this county needs to have for its population size," he said.
Several offices are relocating during construction. The Board of Registrar's Office has moved to the Lee County Meeting Center on 10th Street, behind the courthouse. The Appraisal Office will also be relocated there in the near future.
The Veterans Affairs office moved to the corner of 6th Street and Railroad Avenue as did the Coroner's Office and State Examiner's Office. Eventually, the Lee County Commission offices will move to that location also, but most likely not until late July.
While construction is ongoing, the Probate Office and Revenue Commissioner's Office will stay open inside the courthouse. For those wishing to avoid the construction altogether, satellite offices exist in Auburn and Smiths Station where matters with the Revenue Commissioner's Office and Probate Office can be handled. The Revenue Commissioner's Office also has many procedures that can be completed online at www.leeco.us.