Benton County Courthouse dedication is Saturday

April 19, 2002

Administrative Office of Courts

Benton County officials turned the loss of a local industry into space for county government. A former garment factory in Ashland became the Benton County Courthouse.

Officials will hold a formal dedication ceremony on Saturday, April 20, at 10:30 a.m. at the Benton County Courthouse at 190 Ripley Street in Ashland. Officials attending the dedication ceremony will be Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman, Justices Chuck Easley and George C. Carlson Jr., Circuit Judges Henry Lackey and Andrew Howorth, Chancellors Norman Gillespie and Glenn Alderson and Benton County elected officials.

Lackey said Friday, "The leadership of Benton County is to be commended for recognizing the need for an up-to-date, comfortable facility for the judicial system. It's a real credit to their vision and leadership."

John Booth Farese, attorney for the Benton County Board of Supervisors, had the idea to use the former garment factory building after the board got a $650,000 cost estimate to renovate the old courthouse for compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Renovating the old courthouse would have added 1,500 feet of office space and an elevator, but no storage space for offices that were cramming materials into the basement. Farese said the county got more space for less money by renovating the former garment factory building owned by the county.

"It was like a flash went off in my head. It's exceeded my expectations," Farese said.

"God guides us in lots of ways," Farese said.

Farese took a tape measure and graph paper to the empty factory one cold winter weekend and starting sketching his vision of turning manufacturing space into courtrooms and offices. Renovations were done in two phases. All of Benton County's government offices had moved to the new facility by January 1.

The cost, including equipment and furniture, was $625,000, Farese said.

"Most people can't build a parking lot for that," Farese said.

"We have a very rural county. We have a very small tax base. And we did all of this without raising taxes one penny," Farese said.

Part of the cost savings came from using inmate labor. Two Benton County Jail inmates who were skilled carpenters volunteered to do some of the work, Farese said.

The new courthouse has two courtrooms that are shared by the chancery, circuit and justice courts. Courtrooms are equipped for electronic evidence presentation. The courtrooms are wired for computer presentations and use of CD rom, DVD, video tape, audio tape and wireless microphones. The circuit courtroom, with a seating capacity of 200, is capable of broadcasting its proceedings for viewing in the justice court courtroom if there is an overflow crowd.

Lackey said, "It's the most up-to-date courtroom that I have ever been in."

Farese said, "You can take a complex trial and try it in half of the time because of the technology."

The old courthouse is expected be used by the superintendent of education, the county library and the county historical society.

Farese said he had sentimental attachment to the old building where he tried his first case and tried cases with his father. But renovations would have cost more, yielded less space and marred its beauty.

"We would have ruined the architectural integrity of it. It was built in 1872," Farese said.

"We want to preserve the old building because it is architecturally one of the prettiest courthouses around."

For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452.

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