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Published: Wednesday, 11/2/2011


Don't tear it down

The Seneca County politicians who are determined to turn Tiffin's central square into an empty lot now face a gratifying new source of resistance: Gov. John Kasich, who is appealing to the Board of Commissioners to save the county's historic -- and still usable -- courthouse.

In a letter this week to the commissioners, Mr. Kasich argued that "wisdom dictates preserving the option of making good use of this solid, if long neglected, building." He warned: "If you vote to destroy it now, you will forgo any such possibility and an important Ohio landmark will be lost to the ages."

The governor's bona fides as a cost-slashing deficit hawk add to his credibility on the issue. But the case for renovating the 1884 landmark was conclusive even before Mr. Kasich weighed in.

The old courthouse has been vacant since 2004; the county has made do since then with makeshift court facilities. A new courthouse would cost Seneca County more than a renovated one -- money it does not have.

An irreversible order to tear down the old courthouse would cost as much as $500,000. That amount would knock a hole in the county's battered budget.

But keeping the courthouse in mothballs until the local economy improves would cost the county nothing. A private group is offering to lease the courthouse from the county for $1 a month, and bear all maintenance and insurance expenses, while it seeks private and public funding for its plan to renovate the building at a projected cost of $8 million.

The commissioners could cancel the lease after five years. A similar arrangement has saved the county museum.

The courthouse renovation blueprint has won design awards. An attractive reconstruction of the historically and architecturally significant courthouse would be a solid foundation for reviving downtown Tiffin. That, in turn, would be an economic development asset to the city and county.

Yet the commissioners are set to consider bids next week to knock down the courthouse. Two of the three commissioners, Jeff Wagner and Ben Nutter, persist in the fiction that the building is an intolerable drain on county finances. Mr. Nutter accuses the governor of hypocrisy for reducing state aid to local governments and then pressuring the county to preserve its courthouse.

But Mr. Kasich is showing consistency in his position that Ohio communities and counties must embrace creative solutions and nontraditional partnerships to keep their budgets balanced in a period of fiscal austerity. The public-private redevelopment plan for the courthouse is an example of such thinking.

The courthouse controversy is bringing Seneca County the sort of national attention it can do without. Governor Kasich notes that no Ohio county has razed a historic courthouse since 1970, and that a courthouse on the National Register of Historic Places -- as the Seneca courthouse is -- has never been destroyed in our state.

Tearing down the venerable courthouse now would serve no evident purpose other than to enable a couple of local pols to show everyone else who's boss in Seneca County. That's no reason.

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