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Long-awaited, new Santa Rosa County Courthouse nears opening

Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Bob Cole enters the new Santa Rosa County Courthouse Wednesday, after a ribbon cutting ceremony and unveiling to the public.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Bob Cole enters the new Santa Rosa County Courthouse Wednesday, after a ribbon cutting ceremony and unveiling to the public.

After decades of debate and planning, Santa Rosa County officials are celebrating the completion of the county’s long-awaited new courthouse and appreciating the long journey to get to this point.

“When I first got elected to the board, I immediately began teaming up with my fellow commissioners on what was then an idea to replace an aging Santa Rosa County Courthouse,” said Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Bob Cole during a ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday in front of the new three-story facility on Avalon Boulevard in Milton

Cole has held the District 2 seat on the Board of Commissioners for the past 20 years and has seen all of the project’s highs and lows, dating back to 2002.

“Of course, we all know that that idea failed due to the referendum that was placed before the people of Santa Rosa County on an issue of how to pay for new courthouse construction.”

Twice more voters rejected local option sales tax referendums, as wrangling over where to put it continued.

Speaking at the ribbon cutting, Santa Rosa County Judge and former Santa Rosa Commissioner Robert Hilliard reflected on his 30 years spent in the old courthouse, reminiscing about the lack of climate control and the close quarters that forced judges to use the same hallways as prisoners and the public.

The new courthouse, he said, has been a “long time coming” and to demonstrate the difficult path to fruition, he brought some old newspapers dating back to 2007.   

“Judges Unite on Courthouse Issue,” was the first headline read by Judge Hilliard. He continued with subsequent headlines, ‘Commissioners to Study Possible Sites,’ 2007; ‘Workshop Set for January 13,’ also from 2007.

“We come up to 2013, ‘Courthouse Discussion Begins Again,’” he concluded to chuckles from those in the audience.

Ultimately, Judge Hilliard said all the effort has paid off, with a building designed to securely service citizens with everything from adoptions to last wills and testaments, and everything in between.

“This Board of County Commissioners finally transformed the dream into bricks and mortar. You see it behind me. They’ve built this courthouse that appropriately reflects the consequential nature of the important work to be done here.”

Hilliard was one of many current and former judges on hand for unveiling of the new courthouse and they were invited to line up with Santa Rosa commissioners and Clerk of Court Don Spencer for the official ribbon cutting.

The new courthouse replaces the current courthouse that opened in Downtown Milton in 1927. It was remodeled in 1961, with modular buildings added in 2008.

Estimated to cost about $40 million, the new judicial facility includes seven courtrooms, eight judge's suites and all the necessary court support services including hearing rooms, a law library, evidence rooms, jury selection and jury deliberation spaces.

“From a court security standpoint, I think it’s phenomenal that we’ll finally have a place that’s up to date and modern,” said Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Lt. Dominic Guadagnoli, head of court security, noting limitations on their ability to secure the old courthouse constructed in 1926.

“So, for our guys, for the public and the judiciary, the safety level is going to be ramped up to probably the most modern and safest level that we have now and to our capabilities.”

For individuals entering the courthouse, security measures begin with two metal detectors.

The building’s technology is also evident. A series of digital monitors will display updated courtroom information and each courtroom is outfitted with large screens that can be used for video court or to show evidence.

“Everything is plug and play,” said Guadagnoli.

Attorney Christine Kelly, vice president of the Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association, came for a look at the new facility and is excited about working in it.

“I think it’s definitely overdue and a very welcome change,” said Kelly, who has worked several years in the old courthouse. “I’m looking forward to all the technology features they’ve built in. I think it will be a much nicer experience.”

“Awesome,” said Santa Rosa County resident Gail Smith, getting a first look.

“It has been needed,” added her husband, David. “Because the other old courthouse had a lot of problems and was not to the (regulations) of the disabled.”

Members of the public were able to join Santa Rosa County dignitaries Wednesday for a look inside the county's new courthouse.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Members of the public were able to join Santa Rosa County dignitaries Wednesday for a look inside the county's new courthouse.

Construction of the new Santa Rosa Courthouse began in 2020, after Santa Rosa commissioners scaled back the design and came up with a funding plan that did not involve a local option sales tax.

In his remarks, Commission Chairman Cole, thanked his commission colleagues Don Salter and later Sam Parker for keeping the courthouse issue on the front-burner over the years and supporting the tough decision to move it out of downtown Milton.

“I feel like between the size of the piece of property, the location on Avalon Blvd. and having Mulat Road on the back, it gives us plenty of room to expand.”

Two additional administrative office buildings are planned in the future. For now, finishing touches are taking place, with the courthouse is expected to open to the public in late September.

At Wednesday’s celebration, Cole got the last word.

“Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners and our citizens of this county, I present to you the new Santa Rosa County Courthouse.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.