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It’s north vs south as two Mid-South Cities battle each other over courthouses and county seat status

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BLYTHEVILLE, Ark.-- In Mississippi County,  it isn't quite a civil war but it was north versus south.

A map shows the battle lines drawn, if you will, between the cities of Blytheville and Osceola over who gets to keep its historic courthouse and county seat status.

"We got the Blytheville Courthouse and we have the Osceola Courthouse, and they're 20 miles apart. Basically we hate that designation, this north-south stuff. We try to get around it, but it's unavoidable," said Michael White, the Mississippi County Justice of the Peace from Manilla.

"People say they can't take our dream away from us so I've drawn my line in the sand. They have the north end of the county and we'll just start our new county down here," Glynda Thompson, the President of the Mississippi County Historical and Genealogical Society in Osceola said.

The emotion stems from Mississippi County having two county seats and now two aging courthouses.

The Blytheville Courthouse with its marble floors was built in 1919 and Osceola's Courthouse with its copper dome was constructed in 1912.

"The county is 50 miles long and the concept was to have everybody in a day's horseback ride from the County Courthouse. Now you can go from one end of the county to another in 35 minutes, " White said.

Most of the counties with two seats are in Arkansas and Mississippi.

The National Association of Counties said there are 20 of them.

Mississippi County leaders said their debate isn't just over tradition and folklore, but dollars and cents.

Justice White said both buildings are in desperate need of major repairs such as leaking roofs and boilers costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"We have all kind of structural issues, maintenance issues and it's just a constant never-ending problem with both buildings. We fix one major problem today, another major problem crops up tomorrow. Financially, it's very, very difficult on tax dollars to maintain two 100-year-old courthouses," White said.

The Mississippi County Quorum Courts want voters to approve a plan next year to shut down both courthouses, and build a new $15 million dollar complex. but here's the catch: the new complex would be in Blytheville, a larger city of about 15,000 people.

It would also become the official county seat.

"Blytheville honestly is not the geographic center of the county, but it is the population center of the county and we serve the people the best we can," White said.

Inside "That Bookstore in Byltheville" the shelves are packed with the latest best-selling books and autographed posters are on the walls.

Bookstore co-owner Chris Crawley said the must read here is about the courthouse proposal.

"I think the most important thing about it is it's a development that will improve the community for everyone. It's good for the City of Blytheville. It's good for Mississippi County and subsequently it's good for the state of Arkansas," Crawley said.

The proposed courthouse would be in Blytheville not too far away from Highway 61 and Interstate 55.

Just down the road sits the neo-classical Osceola Courthouse.

A historic marker tells how the building housed the county's records and political battles over the years, but now a new battle is brewing to save the courthouse.

Retired engineer and photographer Jim Brown uses his camera to capture the history of Osceola.

"The courthouse is a part of our lives, most of us many, many years. For us to lose this large building and still functioning as the county seat, it's just terrible. It could bring some people to tears," Brown said.

At the Mississippi County Historical Museum, Glynda Thompson proudly shows old pictures of the Osceola courthouse, a courthouse she said should remain open in a town that should keep its status as county seat.

"In my opinion it should be Osceola. Yes, because it's the original county seat. There are judicial districts and that make it two county seats, which may be true, but the way it's listed, Osceola is listed as the county seat. Blytheville is only listed as a judicial district." Thompson said.

Thompson said the Osceola Courthouse is a tourist attraction for people traveling along Highway 61, better known as the Blues Highway, and without it downtown Osceola would die.

"They see that dome, they stop and tour. They eat in our restaurants. They stay in our motels and if they don't have that to tour, we will lose all of that business and it won't be good for Osceola," Thompson added.

People in Osceola are signing petitions on paper and online using Facebook pages to preserve their history.

All of this as the quorum court hopes to convince the entire county a new courthouse with a consolidated county seat in Blytheville is best for all of Mississippi County.

"But if we can come up with good options for both courthouses and we consolidate and get one county seat one country courthouse and I feel we'll unify the county and get rid of this north-south designation," White said.

For now, the county could remain divided as Osceola fights to save its past and future.

"If the courthouse goes, downtown isn't strong enough to support itself without the courthouse. So, if it goes, Osceola goes," Thompson said.

Possible plans for both historic courthouses would be to turn them into state office facilities.

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