The Town of Garner celebrated its past, present and future this week as town officials cut a blue-and-white ribbon to officially open its new Town Hall.
The $7.5 million, 26,000-square-foot brick and glass building is only the second town hall in the community’s 111-year history. For years, the southern Wake County town used borrowed space before dedicating a town hall as part of a local government complex – library, town hall and police department – on the same site as the new building on Oct. 26, 1975.
The new town hall’s dedication on Tuesday was filled with praise for the new facility and complete with biblical quotations and a genuine appreciation for the Garner citizenry.
The building was paid for as part of a $35.716 million bond program that was approved by about 75 percent of the voters in March 2013. That’s why Mayor Ronnie Williams and each of the Town Council members stressed appreciation to the voters.
Town Council member Ken Marshburn said the building was a result of good citizens, good government and a good future.
There was no question that a new town hall was needed. Hardin Watkins, who resigned as town manager 18 months ago after 8½ years at the town, said he heard about the need for a new town hall on the first day he came to work.
Closets were used for offices. There were few if any technology upgrades and workers could touch cohorts by stretching out their arms. “As you walked down the hallways in the winter you could hear the humming of space heaters in every other office while other offices were screaming for more a/c,” said Rodney Dickerson, who succeeded Watkins as town manager.
The need was apparent, but, as Major Pro-Tem Kathy Behringer put it, “We didn’t build it in a hurry. We did it right.”
One of the first considerations was where to build. In its earliest days, the joke was the town was torn between people who went to First Baptist and those who went to First Methodist. But a political divide developed between Old Garner (the historic main street and other property north of U.S. 70) and the rapidly developing Forest Hills development and soon other housing developments south of U.S. 70.
Development was limited to the north by the City of Raleigh, but south of U.S. 70 was booming.
The town offices were downtown at the Municipal Recorder’s Court from 1953 until 1968. In those days, the town made more from court revenue than taxes, according to “The History of Garner” by Kelly Pattison and Sam Behringer.
The next town hall also was in Old Garner, housed in a 75-year-old former Baptist church. The town’s historic depot was next door, and both were under a massive water tower. On April 18, 1974, a fire quickly consumed the old church, although the depot and the water tower were saved. About 75 percent of the town’s historical documents were destroyed.
The fire motivated the town to push forward its building plans for a new government complex. On April 11, 1974, one week before the fire, the town board had approved building a new town hall, a library and a police station on Seventh Avenue in Forest Hills.
That town hall was dedicated in 1975, but a few years ago when it was time to replace the building, Watkins said keeping the complex on Seventh Avenue wasn’t an automatic decision. The community has spent millions of dollars in keeping its historic district relevant. Long-range plans called for a civic building in the downtown region.
“The board discussed lots of locations and options, including selling this property and buying property somewhere else,” said Watkins, who is now the town manager in Burlington. “In the end, though, this opportunity was too great. Garner now has the new town hall, the new police station and the renovated library all together and downtown is getting a new recreation center.”
Dickerson said it had been a bittersweet week for him. His mother’s funeral was last weekend.
“She would have been proud to see my name carved into the bronze plaque,” Dickerson said. “She had a lot to do with who I am and what I have become. Although the loss of a loved one is far more devastating than the demolition of a building, there are certain parallels.”
He said you hang on to the good memories, the things that molded you, with the passing of a loved one. By the same token, the new town hall could not have been built without the old town hall.
“Because the old town hall was without many amenities, the town made sure the new town hall had technology upgrades, energy efficiency, comfort features and a bold yet elegant look. If it wasn’t for the town business that took place in the old town hall, the new town hall would not exist.”
The new town hall was built for efficiency, energy and otherwise. The planning, inspection and development offices are bunched together, for example. Mayor Williams said the building was designed with citizens getting their business done in mind.
“The layout and technology lends itself to a better customer experience,” Dickerson said. “It’s really not about the bricks and mortar, but about the people whose lives will intersect at this place for a multitude of reasons.”
The building was described as not grandiose, but timeless. The Rev. David C. Forbes, who gave the invocation, said there was no more elegant building in the world.
“Bigger, but no more elegant,” he said. “I am proud to walk into this edifice.”
Helen Phillips, 90, was among the first to walk into the building after the ribbon had been sliced.
“I love it,” she said. “Garner’s got something here that it can really be proud of.”
Tim Stevens writes stories about Garner for The News & Observer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check it out
Take a look inside the new Garner Town Hall at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUwDY3BHYIU