TIFFIN — The owner of a vacant school building in downtown Tiffin wants city and Seneca County officials to consider the structure for a proposed justice center.
The former East Junior High School, built in 1893 as Columbian High School, at East Market and Jefferson streets is diagonal from the site of the Seneca County Courthouse, which was demolished in 2012.
A recently released, state-funded $100,000 study concluded the city and county should build a new joint justice center to house the municipal and common pleas courts. The study recommends constructing the facility, estimated to cost $8.5 million, where the old courthouse once stood.
But Andrew Kalnow, owner of East Tower LLC, which purchased the old school in 2012 from another private firm, believes it could be renovated and expanded to accommodate a courthouse.
“It’s a part of Tiffin that is beautiful and historic. You bring it back to life and, if nothing else, that’s uplifting for everybody,” said Mr. Kalnow, who is chairman and chief executive officer of National Machinery LLC in Tiffin.
Utilizing the empty building “could be a catalyst for more downtown development” and preserve green space created by the courthouse’s demolition.
“We have to think bigger and think where multiple goals can be accomplished,” he said.
The study, commissioned by the North Central Ohio Regional Council of Governments and completed by consultants Burgess and Niple of Cincinnati, considered several sites for a shared justice center, including the old junior high.
The old courthouse location rose to the top because it’s adjacent to an annex building now used by the common pleas court, but designed for the juvenile and probate courts.
The annex was built with additional heating, cooling, and electrical capacity that could be tapped by a new building next door. The side-by-side location would allow the two facilities to share a common entrance, sallyport, and other facilities, according to the study.
From its position across the street, the former school could not share the annex’s amenities. The study also stated the old building would have to be demolished to build on that site, adding extra expense.
Mr. Kalnow believes the stone building could be saved and its interior gutted to meet the courts’ needs. East Tower purchased the roughly one-acre site for $40,000, according to Seneca County land records.
He said the study did not seriously consider the school site, and he was not contacted during its preparation.
Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz and county Commissioner Fred Zoeller, who both participated in the study, said they are open to learning more about a proposal using the school building. But they defended the study and its preference for the old courthouse site.
Mr. Zoeller believes the cost to renovate the school building would be “prohibitive,” although the study didn’t calculate that expense.
“To me it [the school site] just didn’t make sense because it eliminates a lot of the advantages we would have with combining the annex with the justice center and the municipal court and common pleas court,” he said. “If he wants to pay for the study to look at renovating it so we could come up with an actual cost, then I would be receptive to it.”
The city doesn’t have the funds needed to determine how much a project at the school site would cost, Mayor Montz said.
“It comes down to a battle of dollars and cents. If Mr. Kalnow is able to come up with a proposal or an alternative … that is cheaper than what we are facing now, I think we are willing to listen,” he said.
A couple of years ago, city officials considered moving Tiffin Municipal Court to the school building, but rejected that idea after touring the building.
“It’s a beautiful building, but it also needs a lot of work,” Mayor Montz said.
Commissioner Jeff Wagner, who voted to tear down the 1884 courthouse and is the only commissioner left from that decision, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Neither the city nor county has made decisions regarding the study or the proposed justice center.
Tiffin City Council is scheduled to consider the study April 7. Mr. Zoeller believes county commissioners should wait until after that to chime in. He said a final building decision would take place after many additional steps, including design work, public input, and cost analysis.