The potential move of the Loudoun County court facilities from Leesburg would hurt businesses, change the character of the historic downtown and set back efforts to revitalize the area, some downtown Leesburg business owners say.
The county’s Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee is considering several options for expanding court facilities to meet increasing caseloads and other needs resulting from Loudoun’s rapid population growth. Moving the Circuit, General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts outside the town limits is one proposal being considered.
Other options include moving some but not all of the courts or expanding the facilities downtown.
Waily Whang, owner of China King’s Restaurant, said Leesburg’s downtown “is special because of the courts. We have people who go to court, then come here for a quick lunch.”
Jane Shihadeh, co-owner of Shoes Cup and Cork Club, agrees. “I think it would have a huge impact on the morning coffee business, and all day long,” she said.
Shihadeh said many of her customers are judges, jurors and lawyers and their clients. “Most of our current customers come from the court buildings across the street,” she said. “They are foot traffic, and since parking is such an issue, we all like to have those people who can just walk across the street.”
Carrie Gustavson Whitmer, general manager and co-owner of Lightfoot, said the restaurant also gets “a lot of business” from the courts. “Of course we are concerned,” she said. “Everybody wants them to stay.”
Some business owners also said that restaurants are not the only ones who would be affected by relocating the courts. Leesburg Vintner owner Mike Carroll said the move would also hurt the wine shop, which he has owned at King and Loudoun streets for 24 years.
“I know a lot of the attorneys and judges, and they’ll stop in here and buy a bottle of wine or two. [If the courts] leave, I’ll never see them again,” he said. “Didn’t they just spend a lot of money on [the facilities] a few years ago? I don’t see how they can pull out now.”
The county completed the first two phases of the courts expansion between 1997 and 2004, at a cost of about $32 million. The third phase of the project originally called for further expansion of the courts complex east of Church Street, on the former jail site.
But after concerns were raised about security issues, increased traffic and the limited availability of land for additional expansion, the county’s finance committee began exploring options for moving court facilities to a county-owned site off Sycolin Road, near Leesburg Executive Airport.
The county estimates that the cost of moving all three courts outside Leesburg would be $127.4 million — about $74 million more than the $53.7 million that is included in the county’s adopted capital improvement program for the next phase of expansion.
Michael O’Connor, co-chairman of Leesburg’s Downtown Improvement Association, said the possible moving of the courts “flies in the face” of efforts his group and others have made to rejuvenate the downtown. O’Connor owns Palio’s restaurant and other downtown properties.
“From a business perspective, it’s just not good business to move that entire complex elsewhere,” O’Connor said. “It’s where it’s all happening now. Anyone that is involved in the business of the county is used to the county complex and is able to maneuver through that arena.
“A lot of businesses in Leesburg enjoy the participation of people who either work in the complex, work with the complex, or are involved in the business of the county,” O’Connor said. “So the premise of moving it all — outside of the huge cost to the county, to the town, the loss of the business continuum — I think would be a huge shame.”
On Oct. 22, the finance committee received comments on the courts expansion options from several invited “stakeholders,” including representatives of the county’s judicial, legal and law enforcement communities. Owners of downtown businesses were not represented at the meeting. However, Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd said the town’s economic development commission had voted in favor of keeping the courts downtown.
The finance committee is scheduled to discuss the issue again Tuesday. The meeting was originally scheduled for Nov. 26.