The demolition of Seneca County's vintage courthouse this year by fiat of a couple of feckless politicians was an act of wanton destruction, as unnecessary as it was wasteful. Fortunately, the shortsighted disdain for taxpayers' wallets as well as local history on display in Seneca County remains the exception rather than the rule across Ohio.
A special report that starts today in The Blade describes how counties throughout the state are using renovation of their historic courthouses as a tool of economic development and job preservation, as well as fiscal responsibility. Among the heartening recent examples cited by staff writer Jennifer Feehan:
- Next week, Auglaize County will rededicate its 1894 courthouse in Wapakoneta, after a $9 million restoration funded by local and federal money.
- Van Wert County is restoring the main courtroom of its 1874 courthouse, including an uncovering of its stained-glass dome. The project is funded in part by state-authorized fees on court filings. Judges describe the courthouse as the "centerpiece" of downtown Van Wert.
- Medina County agreed to keep and upgrade its 1841 courthouse, in return for construction of a city parking garage next door. City and county officials agree that the courthouse is a vital anchor of downtown Medina's town square, keeping nearby businesses — and the jobs they support — strong.
Contrast these successful projects with the political fiasco in Seneca County that preceded the razing of the historically and architecturally significant 1884 courthouse in Tiffin. Two county commissioners —one Democrat, one Republican — ignored credible proposals to raise private donations and leverage federal aid to preserve the courthouse.
The U.S. Agriculture Department offered Seneca County the same sort of low-interest loan that other Ohio counties have used to help repair their courthouses. Advocates said the Seneca County project would stimulate private investment in the city and county. They argued persuasively that renovation was a cheaper alternative to a new courthouse.
Yet Commissioners Ben Nutter and Jeff Wagner declared the building beyond repair and ordered its destruction at a cost of more than $400,000, even though they have no plans for a new building. They cited cuts in state aid to local governments as a pretext, and Gov. John Kasich offered little more than rhetorical support for the preservation proposal. The site of the old courthouse is now a marginally landscaped vacant lot that detracts from the downtown ambience.
The argument persists that historic preservation is a luxury local governments can't afford amid fiscal austerity; it is easy to make and has superficial appeal. So counties must get creative in identifying sources of private and public funding for courthouse renovation.
Preservationists advocate increased state aid to restoration projects. But they say they want preference given to counties that can show both sensible long-term plans and substantial private fund-raising campaigns among local citizens, businesses, and charitable foundations.
Such a system has worked well in Texas. The mechanism would seem to appeal to Governor Kasich's oft-expressed invocations of local self-help.
Other counties, including Ottawa and Fulton, have paid to renovate their courthouses without raising taxes — voter-approved or otherwise — or even borrowing money. With sufficient will, local officials say, it can be done.
Seneca County's courthouse did not need to fall to the wrecker's ball, but the county's shame is now permanent. Still, no other courthouse in Ohio has to suffer the same fate. Preservation takes vision, creative thinking, and adequate resolve.