Judge lobbies to move federal building from Greenville to Cleveland

Published 11:29 pm Saturday, December 23, 2006

A federal judge has tried for at least nine months to persuade the government to consider moving a federal building to Cleveland.

Attempts to have Cleveland considered as a site for a new federal building have been going on for months, but no decision has been made and efforts to keep the court in Greenville are still moving forward.

U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper, who holds court in the Greenville building and lives about 35 miles away in Cleveland, has lobbied for months to include Cleveland in a site feasibility study.

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Correspondence from Pepper and minutes from meetings with federal officials show a campaign by the judge beginning in March and continuing through November, urging the General Services Administration to consider Cleveland.

Pepper has said he has a long-standing policy of not discussing matters with the press.

Pepper told GSA officials that Greenville’s high crime rate makes it a bad location for a new federal courthouse. In a June 8 e-mail to Joel Rovinsky, the project architect, the judge complained that a June 5 report by Rovinsky did not address security issues.

The sites in Greenville under consideration are the former Stein Mart location, Fine Vines, MACE/Buick Pontiac Dealership, and Goyer Center.

“Each of these parcels, other than Goyer, is located on Washington Avenue,” Pepper wrote, “and all are in the same high crime rate area.”

Greenville officials say the crime rate in their city per capita is similar to Cleveland’s rate.

“It’s all about perception,” Greenville Mayor Heather McTeer Hudson said. “We are a larger city than Cleveland, but Greenville is a safe place to be and a safe place to shop.”

According to the latest figures in the FBI Uniform Crime Report:

— Greenville, with a population of 39,222 in 2005, had 3,104 crimes, of which 245 were violent.

— Cleveland, with a population of 12,978, had 1,090 crimes with 46 reported as violent.

Sug Signa and her husband, Doe, own Doe’s Eat Place on Nelson Street in Greenville.

“We’ve been here 65-plus years and crime has never been an issue,” Sug Signa said. “We’ve never had a problem.”

In the June 8 e-mail, Pepper outlined some of the problems he sees with the Greenville sites that were considered by GSA.

“If neither GSA or you are going to even consider the legitimate security concerns voiced earlier when selecting a location for the court, please tell me why you solicit our opinion? You were advised at the last meeting here that this area had the highest criminal statistics in north Mississippi, if not the state,” Pepper wrote. “Your report acknowledges that the Central Business District has moved from this area, either to U.S. 82 or Mississippi 1 South.”

Keeping a federal building downtown won’t help the area prosper, Pepper said.

“I understand the policy of revitalization for a CBD, but it must be remembered that it was the businesses and the citizens of Greenville who abandoned this area; they elected to leave voluntarily,” Pepper wrote. “The court has been in its present location for almost 50 years (since 1959), which, according to your report, the construction thereof coincides remarkably with the timeline of the demise of downtown Greenville in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the migration of retail businesses from the downtown.”’

The location of a new federal building in 1958-59 and an expansion in 1972 didn’t stop businesses and homeowners from leaving the area, Pepper wrote in his e-mail.

“Revitalization did not occur at any time subsequent to the first Federal Building being built in downtown Greenville,” Pepper said, “and this noble experiment having failed once, should not be undertaken again.”

Minutes of a March 17, 2006 meeting Pepper and others had with GSA officials reveal his disapproval of Greenville sites. The minutes say Pepper informed GSA that “the Greenville CBD suffers from high crime rates, accessibility issues (by vehicles), closed businesses and plans for an interstate outside of Greenville (Interstate 69) that would bypass the traditional downtown of Greenville.”

The GSA’s Heather Bischoff told those attending the March meeting that the feasibility study under way at the time would only consider sites in Greenville, but could go outside of the city’s central business district if needed.

Jeff Davis, a deputy U.S. marshal, told the GSA that the feasibility study should avoid looking at sites off of Nelson Street in downtown Greenville, “given that this area has the highest crime rate in the district, possibly the state.”

Meeting minutes show that Davis also asked if GSA would consider two projects — one a courthouse and one a federal building. Bischoff said that it couldn’t be a courts only project, but would need to continue as a federal building project.

Speaking up for Greenville, Bill Allen told GSA officials that not all tenants agree with the courts on locating the new building. Allen is district manager of the Social Security Administration, which is housed in the federal building. He said SSA does not want to leave the central business district and feels that they best serve their client base by being located in the area.

In a recent letter to the Delta Democrat Times, Allen continued to voice his support for keeping the federal building in Greenville.

“Over the last several months I have heard more criticism about crime in downtown Greenville that I know for certain is more rumor than fact,” Allen wrote.

“Those that are out to discredit Greenville are spreading rumors — not fact — concerning crime in downtown Greenville that is not only mean, but untrue. Everybody has crime. There is crime in Cleveland; there is crime in Leland; there is crime in Oxford; there is crime in all those other places that are spreading rumors about crime in downtown Greenville.”