By Dave Rogers
For the Record
The wheels are turning again for the move of Orange’s City Hall but no one’s going anywhere for a while.
The Thursday decision by the Texas Ninth Court of Appeals in Beaumont that Orange’s Master Plan is “a guide” and not a law freed the city to continue with a move it began in January – the purchase of the First Financial Building on 16th Street.
The sale’s closing is expected to be finalized in December.
“We’re very excited that the city’s litigation has been resolved and not they’re ready to move forward with the purchase,” said Stephen Lee, president and CEO of First Financial Bank-Orange.
But the city can’t move into its new digs until the bank moves out and that won’t happen until its new building is complete.
Lee expects that to take 18 months.
“We intend to acquire the property at Park and 16th Street that is currently owned by the Stark Foundation,” the banker said. “We intend to build a headquarters for our Southeast Texas regional bank somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 square feet.”
Shawn Oubre, city manager, said the bank’s desire to move spurred the negotiations between the city and the bank.
“Council has seen the layout of the bank and the offices of the bank,” Oubre said. “It mirrors many of the desires the council was looking for when they instructed staff to find other offices for city departments.
“The main benefits to the citizens is that (the bank building) was never out of operation during any of the recent disasters and is in a good location to provide services in future disasters.”
City Council voted Jan. 12 to spend $2 million for the building at 812 N. 16th Street to be used as Orange City Hall, Orange Convention & Visitors Bureau and Orange Economic Development Corporation offices.
The council’s resolution also authorized the city to lease the building back to the bank for $10,000 per month until its new building was completed.
“The lease has not been executed but will at the time of closing and then the city will begin receiving monthly payments from the bank until they vacate,” Oubre said.
“The bank and their employees have been very good to deal with in negotiations and with the case winding through court. Council appreciates their patience.”
The transaction was put on hold when the non-profit group Historic Orange Preservation Empowerment (HOPE) filed an injunction against the purchase and plan to move city hall from downtown and 802 W. Green Ave.
The building was constructed in 1924 as the home of E.W. Brown, Jr., prominent Orange pioneer, and sold to the city in 1944. It has served as city hall since.
Leslie Barras, founder of HOPE, said the city master plan requires city hall to be in Old Town Center and the city charter says the master plan can only be changed through a process of hearings involving the planning and zoning commission and city council.
She contended council’s action violated the city charter.
“The whole issue was why would the city not hold public hearings on this big decision?” Barras said. “The legal issue was we thought the city charter required them to hold a public meeting on this.”
260th District Judge Buddie Hahn ruled in March the city’s decision was legal and the HOPE group appealed.
John Cash Smith, the city attorney, said the unanimous decision by the court of appeals only verified what he believed all along.
“We checked that very question before we even made the decision to buy the bank, that it did not violate the master plan,” Smith said.
“I was very confident the city would prevail in this thing. Judge Hahn ruled for us, and on appeal before three judges, it was unanimous.”
Oubre, the city manager, was asked if the city had a planned use for the city hall building once it moves to 16th Street.
“Council is aware of the history of the home and what it represents,” he said. “It is premature to begin on this when we still have to move.
“Future council will work with the citizens to find the best use of the home.”