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Published: Friday, 8/22/2008

Commissioner eyes new terms for courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Seneca County Commissioner Dave Sauber threw another hurdle at preservationists racing to secure a private owner for the county's 1884 courthouse.

In addition to "a bottom number" of $500,000 for the courthouse, Mr. Sauber told the board yesterday he would want the county to receive a performance bond guaranteeing the courthouse is renovated on schedule as well as an agreement that the new owner purchase the annex building next to the courthouse.

Mr. Sauber said county government already is fragmented into too many different buildings, and he does not want to have separate court buildings that would require separate security staffs and other inefficiencies for taxpayers.

"For me, to give up the county seat over here where the courthouse sits on the town square is very difficult," he said, adding that he was "not willing to split our offices" even more than they are now.

He was responding to a proposal preservation consultant Franklin Conaway is developing in which commissioners would transfer the courthouse to a public entity such as the local port authority which then could sell the building to a yet-unnamed private entity that would renovate the downtown landmark and convert it to new uses, such as retail, conference space, or other government offices.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger said it was the first time he heard the suggestion that any potential private investor also purchase the annex - a building that currently houses the Common Pleas Courts and the Clerk of Courts.

"I think that needs to be negotiated between the county and the new entity," Mr. Bridinger said.

If a new courthouse is built, the Common Pleas Courts and clerk's office would move into the new building, while Probate and Juvenile Courts would move into the annex.

Commissioner Ben Nutter said after the meeting that Mr. Sauber's suggestion was "logical" but would not be a deal breaker for him if a legitimate offer to redevelop the courthouse is brought to the board.

"I think the idea is certainly worth discussion, but it would not necessarily preclude me as a commissioner from voting for some type of transfer," Mr. Nutter said.

Jackie Fletcher, a courthouse proponent who is challenging Mr. Sauber in the November election, said after the meeting that her opponent seemed to be looking for another way to make sure the courthouse is not saved.

"There were no surprises. They were continuing on the same path of making it even more difficult to happen," she said.

Mr. Sauber, who was out of town when commissioners met with Mr. Conaway on Monday, said he feels like commissioners have been left in the dark about the plan for the courthouse.

"I'm a little frustrated that this process seems to be going on behind closed doors," Mr. Sauber said. "At the last [Architectural Board of Review] meeting, I thought Mr. Conaway was very evasive about what he's doing and who he's doing it with."

Mr. Conaway said earlier this week that he cannot divulge the investors with whom he is talking because he does not know yet which ones will be involved.

"These are major investors who have the capability of doing the project," he said.

Yesterday, all three commissioners agreed that time was running out for Mr. Conaway to bring them a written proposal. They have said they will not re-bid the demolition of the 1884 courthouse, and the bid they plan to award expires Oct. 8.

"This is getting old," Mr. Sauber said. "This is ridiculous. Everywhere I go people ask, 'Why is this still going on?' "

Mr. Nutter said commissioners need to have a written proposal for the courthouse in their hands when they meet Aug. 28 so that they can make a decision Sept. 2 - the date of their next meeting with Tiffin's Architectural Board of Review.

Tiffin resident Merle McKillip told the board he felt the same frustration expressed by Mr. Sauber.

He said county residents voted not to spend any money for the courthouse. "We did that twice. Why are we in the situation we're in right now?" Mr. McKillip asked.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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