About 200 people attended a meeting hosted by Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance about the potential purchase of the Denton building by the city and county for expanded court space on Tuesday.
The packed meeting was held at Hotel Madison and Shenandoah Valley Conference Center and featured presentations by Andrea Dono, the director of HDR, and Carole Nash, an archeologist and James Madison University professor.
Nash’s presentation focused on the demolition of 17 buildings on Liberty and West Market streets around the early 1990s to clear the way for the Rockingham County Jail and District Court.
Hers was a tale of caution — how area residents assumed that there would be a long process, including environmental and historic review, which would be completed before demolition of the structures along the two roads.
“We were wrong,” she said.
It is with similar concerns about the fate of the Denton building that Dono encouraged members of the public to advocate for more information about the potential purchase of the property.
“We should try to find a way to allow the community to have more input in this whole process to make sure that we understand what the community’s vision is and to figure out a way to move forward with community input,” Dono said.
It was first reported in October that the city and county were looking at purchasing the Denton building to provide space for the crowded justice facilities, such as courtrooms and offices.
The Denton building lies on two parcels with three addresses — 50 S. Liberty St., 58 S. Liberty St. and 61 Court Square — with a combined assessed value of more than $3.7 million, according to 2020 data from the Harrisonburg City Real Estate Information System.
The population of Harrisonburg is estimated at 56,012 for this year, a number that is projected to swell nearly 25%, or roughly 13,000, to 69,110 by 2040, according to the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
“There is need for an expansion. We just have to figure out how to do it together,” Dono said of the court space.
A major thrust of Dono and Nash’s presentations was that it is not too early to begin talking about the potential changes regarding the building, especially since any changes will have a lasting impact on downtown.
Dono also broached the topic of a local ordinance to protect historic districts. Years ago, she said, City Council was not interested in such a motion.
“Maybe now is the time to open that conversation back up,” she told the audience.
In an interview, Stephen King, Rockingham County administrator, said it is still “very early” in the process regarding a purchase or leasing of downtown property for more judicial space.
“We’re just looking at various locations, and the Denton building is one of those locations,” King said. “We have looked at a number of different possibilities within a two- or three-block radius around that entire location.”
He said the problem of the crowded downtown judicial system could not be “addressed overnight.”
“There’s no urgency, but we don’t want to delay for years and then put the next city and county leaders in a position of not having a solution,” King said.
Another concern of many at the Tuesday meeting was the potential demolition of the Denton building.
“I really can’t say with certainty either way,” King said of whether the building would be demolished if the city and county bought it.
“It’s going to take us years to evaluate and figure out what direction we’re going,” he said.
Kristen Drueen, who lives just outside the city limits, attended Tuesday’s meeting. She said she grew up in Harrisonburg and regularly visits downtown to eat at restaurants and walk around.
“I respect that the judiciary needs additional space [and] it has to be safe so that they don’t have to walk, but there’s always creative ways to come up with solutions that it doesn’t take away from the community and how we present ourselves outside of Harrisonburg,” she said.
City Councilman George Hirschmann, who was at the meeting, said he figured a solution can be found that would preserve the building while also addressing the judicial system’s need for more space.
“I’m in favor of maintaining the Denton building, but I’m [also] in favor of finding court space,” he said.
Availability of housing, retail, restaurants and cultural amenities has helped downtown revive, Dono said.
“Those are all the things that help us go from a downtown that was basically empty and suffering from disinvestment to what we have today, which is certainly not at the end yet,” she said. “We still have further to go.”
The Denton building houses Larkin Arts, an art shop and gallery with studio spaces, as well as Dover Harper Bail Bonds along with 44 apartments.
“Some of our most valuable assets are our small businesses and historic buildings,” Dono said. “Those are what got us to where we are today.”