More than a decade of work culminated in a half-hour ceremony Friday, at the dedication of the Thomson-McDuffie County Government Center.
The public swarmed around the fountain outside the judicial center, watched the flag ceremony, applauded brief speeches and then toured the joined buildings that will house most branches of city and county government.
Those who have begun working in the building guided the public through the hallways and offices, and offered their appreciation for the new structure.
"I'm very proud of this building," said county manager Don Norton.
"I like it" was the understated comment from city administrator Don Powers, whose new office shares the top floor of the city-county wing.
The public walked the halls, asked directions, and offered their own opinions. "Beautiful," said Deacon Benny Bentley. "I can't believe this is McDuffie County."
The evening featured speeches and ceremony, in addition to children's inflatable rides, about 1,000 free hot dogs, and a $10,000 fireworks display.
The Rev. Frederick D. Favors offered the invocation. Favors, who also is a county commissioner, served as chairman of the steering committee for the new building. Also serving were former Mayor Robert E. Knox Jr., Mayor Kenneth Usry, Judge Roger Dunaway, Mike Carrington, Lee Anne Cowart, Robert L. Flanders, Fred Guerrant, Ella Mae Samuels, and Norton and Powers. Serving as ex-officio members were Tom Gunnels, Riley Stamey and project manager Judson S. Bryant.
Donna Branch Stillinger was chairwoman of the committee that organized the celebration. Also serving were Bernice Brown, Keryl Frost Corley, DeDe Keir, Bonnie McCorkle, Elizabeth Vance, Bill Jopling, Beverly Luckey Raburn, Tina Swann and Carrington.
The Thomson High School Navy Junior ROTC presented the colors. Members of the high school band and baton team began the ceremony. Mark Bowers sang the national anthem.
After speakers stepped aside and invited the public to tour the building, sisters Abby Williamson, 7, and Audrey Williamson, 10, were the first to walk through the doors. They were followed by their grandmother Paulette Williamson, a 37-year employee of the magistrate court. The girls said they were eager to see their grandmother's new workplace.
Officials who offered brief comments on the new facility focused on the promise of even further cooperation among government entities.
McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton said the community should be proud of "a new, modern facility that will be paid for within the next 10 years and will belong to our children from now on."
Newton thanked the steering committee "that worked tirelessly to put together the floor plans for this facility and the external faÃ§ade" and the campus.
"I'd like to thank Jud Bryant, who's our program manager," Newton said. "Jud's been with us since 2003 when all this started, and has done a fine job for us."
He also thanked Craig Butler of builder R.W. Allen. Butler raised money for the fireworks display, which he also staged. "I'd like to thank the donors that stepped up and helped him do that," Newton said. "And I'd like to thank the McDuffie County Fire and Rescue Cadets that worked real hard in the heat today to help set up the fireworks display. I'd like to thank the members of the dedication committee. We gave them the whirlwind task of putting all this together in a very short period of time, and I know it hasn't been an easy thing for you to do."
"As I said, this is a great day for McDuffie County, it's the culmination of over eight years of work, and even before that eight years, there was the talk of whether we really needed this facility or not," he said. "There was talk of how big it should be where we were going to get the money, how could we acquire the land. It's just been a long, long road here. It's a beautiful new facility. What you see behind you is a modern day courthouse with modern day security. And that's a lot of what goes with progress."
He said the building's appearance will pay dividends. "Finally, this is a showpiece for any new people that come to our community," Newton said. "When you meet with an industrial prospect in a historic building as we have across town, that's what you look like, is a part of history. When you meet with an industrial prospect in a new facility like this, you look like part of the future."
Usry, Thomson's mayor, talked of the value of cooperation. "As we gather here to dedicate this new building, we should all be proud to have arrived at this point. It's a journey that began at joint city-county planning session," he said. "In 2000, the idea was conceived to build a new government complex that would house both city and county government.
"In 2003, the voters of McDuffie County supported a special option sales tax which included $2 million to purchase land for this building. In 2009 the voters again approved the construction of this facility."
"Now, no building is just its shell," Usry continued. "What goes on in that shell represents the heart and soul of this community. As we begin our new joint operations here, let us remember that the local elected city and county officials carry out the awesome responsibility of reasoning together and making decisions which are in the best interest of all.
Dearing Mayor Sean Kelley said his experience over six years working with county and Thomson leaders has dispelled the notion that Dearing is not considered an equal in those discussions.
"I didn't know anything about being a mayor or how to do anything with government. It has just been one big cooperation between Thomson and McDuffie County that helped me and our council get things done," Kelley said.
He cited the renovation of the old Dearing school gym and the addition of an ambulance station as examples of the benefits of cooperation.
"If I need something I can pick up the phone. I've had to call Don Powers numerous, numerous times," Kelley said.
Dunaway, who is the chief judge of the Toombs Judicial Circuit, said the building will serve in "practical and beautiful ways."
"And it shows a dedication to the administration of justice in an atmosphere of dignity and respect," he said.
"This magnificent new facility belongs to you, the people," he said.
"Because of our abiding faith in our laws, our institutions of government, because of our sacrifices by our people, our constitution, our Bill of Rights and our democratic values, our cherished American way of life will endure a long time after even this building has been reduced to rubble by the passage of time," he said.
Dunaway introduced the keynote speaker, Edward J. "Ed" Tarver, the United States attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.
"This new government complex and courthouse replaces one that has stood for over 140 years," he said. "Most of you will recall that in 1870 the legislation that created McDuffie County provided that the county probate judge would select a piece of land in Thomson on which to build a courthouse and jail. Until the courthouse was built, county officials rented the first two floors of the Masonic Building to hold court. In 1872, two years after the initial legislation, the General Assembly authorized the probate judge to issue bonds and finance the construction of a courthouse. With the exception of the renovations that took place in 1934 and 1970, the original courthouse is the only predecessor to the government building that we dedicate today."
Tarver continued, "The courts also play an important role in our government's efforts to keep our citizens safe. Across this great nation, people look to government complexes and courthouses as symbols of safety, of fair and impartial justice for all. Through the prism of the 140-year history of McDuffie County, we sometimes redact unfavorable episodes that describe times when government complexes and courthouses were used to abuse the justice system, rather than uphold its integrity."
He said the ceremony was about celebrating progress.
"This government complex and courthouse stands for a new beginning, an opportunity to look forward, even as McDuffie County faces new challenges created by the recession and its impact on the amount of resources available to the government and the courts to accomplish their constitutional obligation," he said.