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Historic rebirth: Tiffin on upswing years after courthouse battle

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    Exterior of the new Seneca County Justice Center in Tiffin.

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    Seneca County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael P. Kelbley.

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    Statue of Lady Justice on top of the new Seneca County Justice Center.

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    Judge Steve C. Shuff inside the new Seneca County Justice Center Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Tiffin.

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    Holding area inside the new Seneca County Justice Center.

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    Municipal Court room inside the new Seneca County Justice Center.

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    Exterior of the new Seneca County Justice Center.

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    Jackie Fletcher in front of the new Seneca County Justice Center in Tiffin.

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    Seneca County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael P. Kelbley.

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    Seneca County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael P. Kelbley in the new Seneca County Justice Center.

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    View of downtown Tiffin from the new Seneca County Justice Center.

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TIFFIN — A 10-foot-tall bronze Lady Justice tops off Seneca County’s new courthouse and overlooks a downtown in the midst of an undeniable rebirth.

After a long, contentious, and ultimately unsuccessful fight to save the county’s historic 1884 courthouse, investors are putting their money into the historic buildings that line Tiffin’s downtown streets. There are new restaurants and retail stores, upper-floor loft apartments, a bourbon bar, a craft brewery, an outdoor amphitheater, and any number of events drawing people downtown.

“I think that when the courthouse went down, a lot of people who didn’t give it a thought or who thought, ‘It’s an old building, who cares?’ A lot of people said, ‘Oh my God. What do we do now? What will replace it? And what about the rest of historic Victorian Tiffin?’” said Doug Collar, who fought to restore the courthouse. “What’s happened since then is amazing.”

Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz, who took the oath of office late in 2011 in front of the soon-to-be-demolished courthouse, said there has been more activity downtown in recent years than the city has seen in decades.

“If there was a silver lining to the demolition of the courthouse, I believe what it did was serve as a rallying point for people to say, ‘This cannot be allowed to happen anymore to our historic downtown buildings,’” said Mr. Montz, now 32 and in his second term as mayor.

VIDEO: Preservationist Jackie Fletcher on the Seneca County Justice Center

Several factors have played into the changing winds in Tiffin: new leadership in the city and county, a distinct spirit of cooperation, an appreciation for the city’s historic architecture, and investment by entrepreneurs both young and old.

Supporters of a restored 1884 courthouse long argued the renovation project would help revitalize downtown, but as longtime Tiffin lawyer Dean Henry put it, “That ship has sailed.”

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Judge Steve C. Shuff inside the new Seneca County Justice Center Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Tiffin.

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He said it’s “a grand thing” that the new four-story, brick courthouse — which houses both Common Pleas Court and Tiffin-Fostoria Municipal Court — is up and running.

“I’ve been practicing law coming up on 28 years and every single day since I’ve been practicing law the discussion has been what are we going to do with the courthouse?” Mr. Henry said.

The Beaux Arts-style courthouse had long been neglected by county commissioners and abandoned in 2004. The common pleas court and clerk of courts “temporarily” moved into a newly built annex intended for probate and juvenile courts.

Plans to restore the vacant courthouse were delayed. Talk of demolition ensued. Commissioners swayed back and forth as preservationists formulated an $8 million plan to save the landmark designed by noted architect Elijah Myers.

In 2012, the wrecking ball arrived on a cold January day, and no last-minute efforts could stop it.

Fast-forward six years.

Mr. Collar said even the staunchest preservationists have “come around.”

“The town did not die,” he said. “As sad as it is not to have that Myers courthouse, the average Tiffinite is excited about going downtown now. I think a lot of Millennials for years wanted to get out of Tiffin and go to Columbus because Columbus was cool. Now Tiffin is cool.”

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Jackie Fletcher in front of the new Seneca County Justice Center in Tiffin.

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Community leaders like David Zac, president and chief executive officer of the Seneca Economic and Industrial Development Corp., arrived in town after the courthouse battle had ended. They got to work without the political baggage that accompanied the fight.

Even the longest-serving Seneca County commissioner, Holly Stacy, came in to office in 2013 when the courthouse site was a green space. She said it’s “a great feeling” to have built the new justice center, as it’s called, with the city.

Tiffin contributed $3 million toward construction of the courthouse that ultimately cost more than $15.5 million — considerably more than the $8 million the restoration project was estimated at and far more than the original $10 million estimate for new construction.

The municipal court, which occupies the second floor, has committed to paying 25 percent of the operating and maintenance budget and to providing $10,000 a year to a capital improvement fund. The county is covering 75 percent of operating expenses and paying $30,000 a year toward capital improvements.

“We think it’s the first in the state,” Ms. Stacy said of the city-county courthouse. “One of the reasons it was the first in the state of Ohio is that it’s not an easy task. It took time, but we have a wonderful level of cooperation going on across the county.”

Both the municipal and common pleas courts moved into the new building in March and are working together in other ways. They’ve launched a pilot drug court program that involves both the misdemeanor and felony courts.

Common Pleas Judges Michael Kelbley and Steve Shuff, who originally worked in the 1884 courthouse, are pleased with the finished product, which they described as functional, secure, and handicapped accessible.

“Tearing down the courthouse delayed us and really got a lot of people upset,” Judge Shuff said. “It upset me, but you cannot do something you’re not allowed to do. It was the commissioners’ decision. You have to improvise, adapt, adjust, and overcome, and I think we’ve done that.”

The new building has a single secure entrance that also will serve the probate and juvenile courts in August when they move into the attached annex, which is undergoing $417,700 in renovations.

“Getting adequate court facilities has been a battle for a long time in this county,” Judge Shuff said. “Now we can say we have adequate court facilities that I think inspire dignity and respect for the law.”

He enjoys gazing out his third-floor window at a downtown that has survived and thrived.

“I think that Tiffin was just ready. They were waiting for that push,” said Amy Reinhart, who was hired in 2014 as Downtown Main Street manager with SIEDC.

She oversees a program focused on re-energizing downtown and preserving its historic character by helping building owners shore up structures and roofs and making over facades. For the past three years, the city has been setting aside $100,000 a year for facade enhancement grants of up to $10,000 to building owners.

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Exterior of the new Seneca County Justice Center.

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Tiffin natives Suzie Reineke and her husband, Weston Reinbolt, moved back to the city from Findlay a few years ago, bought an old building downtown, and renovated the first-floor commercial space and upper-floor loft apartments. Mr. Reinbolt said they’ve gotten grants from the city for each of the last three years and are now working on their fourth building — renting the urban-style lofts as soon as they’re complete.

“We’ve driven past these buildings our whole life and never really thought about what was behind the walls,” Ms. Reineke said. “It’s really been interesting and cool to bring them back to life.”

Joyce Barrett, executive director of Heritage Ohio, which runs the Main Street program that Tiffin is part of, made many trips to Tiffin when the courthouse battle was raging. She still laments its loss but said the city is on the right track.

“We say all the time you can’t put a good business in a crummy building,” Ms. Barrett said. “Just a modest investment can leverage so much because people start believing someone cares.”

Ms. Reinhart said that in 2017, downtown Tiffin saw 20 completed facade projects, 10 new businesses opened, and 41 new jobs created. New events designed to bring families as well as students from the city’s two colleges, Heidelberg University and Tiffin University, downtown have been well-received.

“We’ve had so much change in the last four years, it’s been absolutely phenomenal,” she said.

Jackie Fletcher, an outspoken proponent of restoring the 1884 courthouse, said she’s moved past the divisive issue. She continues to work on projects with the Tiffin Historic Trust and helped raise money for the purchase of the Lady Justice statue for the new courthouse.

“We really truly did turn the other cheek,” Ms. Fletcher said. “We feel it is in everyone’s best interest to move on and get things moving in the right direction.”

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.

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