Tom Gunnels has a reason to smile.
For years, the 10th Judicial Administrative District Court Administrator's office has leased space in downtown Augusta from a private firm since 1976 because the Richmond Count courthouse just did not have room.
On July 15, Gunnels was the first to move into the new Columbia County Justice Center in Evans.
"I love it," Gunnels said. "We are quite pleased. it is beautiful."
Today - nearly six weeks after Gunnels moved into the building - the other offices for Columbia County's courts have made the move, including magistrate, probate, juvenile courts, superior courts and the clerk of courts. The first court session - a day of probate court - was held on July 31, said Steve Szablewski, county administrator.
Now, it is time to make it all official: A ribbon-cutting ceremony unveiling the building and all its functions will be held at 10 am. Friday. The Rev. Bill Harrell, of Abilene Baptist Church, and the Rev. Glenn Ethridge, of Wesley United Methodist Church, will conduct the invocation and benediction.
County elected officials including county commissioners, judges and users of the building, will have a chance to speak and officially cut the ribbon. The two superior court judges assigned to the building are Lynn Allgood and Neal Dickert.
"I think (building users) are real happy," said Marilyn Heuer, county project administrator. "It is hard making the change. It is just such a bright-light happy place. I think it has helped everybody's morale. People come in and are excited and pleased. To me, it has been a good thing and worth the hassle of the move."
A more formal building dedication in November, which will be a bigger event - possibly with a supreme justice present - is still being planned, Heuer said.
Heuer describes the justice center as a place for one-stop shopping for county residents. Functions that were housed at the Appling courthouse have moved to the Evans center. For example, residents can pay speeding tickets in probate court, apply for a marriage or gun license or search for home or vehicle records, all in the same building.
"You can get married in a spanking new courtroom if you want," Heuer said. "It is going to be much more convenient to come in a get copies of things like (deeds and licenses). It is down here instead here instead of having to make the half-hour drive up there (to Appling). So, it is a convenience thing for the majority of people."
The justice center's convenience is not just in its location, but in its courtroom technology. The four new courtrooms have been equipped with integrated computer system so judges, jury and spectators can view presented evidence on monitors of large-screen televisions. Space below the floors allows for all wiring to be stashed out of view. The courtrooms are also equipped with media rooms with one-way glass.
Previously, the same tasks were handled through the use of overhead projectors and VCRs, Szablewski said.
"Everyone I have talked to is delighted with the layout of the building and the way it functions," Szablewski said. "This (technology) should expedite the trial process."
Security has also been beefed up at the justice center. The Appling courthouse had a deputy stationed there when a trial was in progress or any other event that may require it. Otherwise, anyone could walk in.
"The objective is to provide security in the justice center while causing the least possible inconvenience to the general public and the employees," said Capt. Steve Morris, Columbia County Sheriff's Office. "We feel quite confident that the security measures in place should thwart (any threats)."
Employees are required to wear photo identification badges. Employees and the public are required to go through walk-through metal detectors and X-ray equipment manned by a sheriff's office deputy at the front door. They also escort prisoners for trial from the detention center to holding cells in the justice center basement and to the courtroom.
For the most part, the county has a completely operational courthouse annex.
"I would say it is 99-percent complete, but there are still some things to be checked on," Szablewski said. "I would say that as people move in and operate, we will find things that need to be modified a little bit. It is just like a ship that is built. You go on a shakedown cruise and you find little things that need an adjustment or fine tuning. But, all the major systems are up and running."
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