By Tommy Mann Jr. – For The Record

A group seeking to keep City Hall in downtown Orange, and possibly in its current location, presented two options to City Council on Tuesday afternoon.

Leslie Barras, representing Historic Orange Preservation Empowerment (HOPE), addressed Orange City Council during the public comments section on Tuesday afternoon and presented two options she hopes council would consider to possibly keep City Hall at its current historic location or at least in downtown Orange, while maintaining the current site.

“Basically, with this option, we would end up with three buildings at the current site,” Barras explained.

According to Barras, the first option would be to improve the interior of the current City Hall faclity and “make it more usable.” Also part of this plan would be to relocate the “garage” in back of City Hall to the west side of the property to where the parking lot currently is.

“The city’s plan supposedly has demolition of the garage estimated at $30,000, so I think moving the garage would be cheaper,” she said. “A few years ago the city spent $40,000 to move a house two blocks down Eighth Street, when the new fire department was being built, so, it would have to be reworked, but it would have to be cheaper than that because this would only move a couple hundred feet or so.”

Along with moving the garage, a new construction is part of Barras’ first option as well.

“The other part of this plan would be to build a new, one-story, 2,500 square-foot office building where the garage currently is,” Barras said. “It would also include a drive-through lane for paying bills.”

The parking lot would have to be remade but would still have ample parking spaces, according to Barras. There was also the recommendation to cut a new curb on Green Avenue.

“This would improve traffic around the building and give it a circular flow,” she added.

The second to option Barras and the group created would have two City Halls in Orange, one being a historic location and the other being a new, functioning City Hall.

“DeQuincy, Louisiana has two City Halls,” Barras said. “One is historic and the other is the new City Hall. We could make the historic City Hall in Orange still at its current site and do some remodeling of the first floor. Then it could be dedicated over to the Orange CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau). It could be a tourist attraction and maintain some functional use.”

The other part of the second option would require the City of Orange to purchase a new location, but, instead of the First Financial Bank facility on 16th Street in Orange, it would be the location formerly home to Hibernia Bank and Capital One Bank in downtown.

“That building is about 6,900 square feet and is more than adequate to put the 13 city employees that need to be house there,” Barras explained. “The First Financial Bank building is something like 24,000 square feet. It’s just huge and more space than they need. I’ve even heard there has been talk of the City renting out the unused space in the building.”

Barras and her husband had an architect draw up on plans on the former banking building and how it could be transformed into the new City Hall.

“The plans are really impressive,” she said. “The architect added exterior panels to cover up the glass and added solar panels where the drive through lanes are to help reduce energy costs. It would retain a contemporary look, but it would maintain some of the looks of old City Hall with the red-brick look.”

In early January, the City of Orange approved plans to relocate City Hall in an effort to better purchase the current First Financial Bank location at 819 16th St. and convert it into a a new City Hall. This location will also house the Orange Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A study was conducted by Architectural Alliance this past year to determine if the current City Hall facility in downtown Orange could meet the needs of the community for the future.

Results from the study indicated the City Hall location “was not conducive to current and future needs of the city” and the costs to convert and construct a new facility were not feasible. Numerous vacant locations in downtown Orange were considered and inspected for repairs and several were in excess of $1 million.

The First Financial Bank property has been appraised at approximately $4.75 million, which was out of the city’s price range. However, First Financial agreed to make a charitable contribution in the form of a gift of $2.75 million, which will leave the city owing $2 for the property.

A motion was filed in early February by the group of local citizens, Historic Orange Preservation Empowerment, in the 260th District Court of Orange County, which forced the City of Orange to put its plans on hold to relocate City Hall to the First Financial Bank building and to halt any possible action in regards to its current City Hall in downtown Orange.

The case is now before the Ninth Court of Appeals in Beaumont. A brief has already been filed by Barras and the group. The City of Orange has until May 10 to file a brief in response.

“We’re really not sure when the appeals court will make a decision, so now we just have to wait,” Barras said.

According to the City of Orange website, the City Hall structure was originally the home of E.W. Brown Jr., who was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in Orange. The two-story, red brick house was built in 1924 and stands adjacent to the original site of the home that once belonged to his father, E.W. Brown Sr., who was also a prominent businessman. The City of Orange purchased the building in 1944.

“My goal with this is to get our elected officials to seriously consider these options,” Barras said. “We, the people of Orange, have been excluded from this whole process and that’s not right.”