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Published: Wednesday, 10/12/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

State preservation official pleads against demolition of courthouse

Kasich representative also attends Seneca County meeting

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A redevelopment group proposes to do exterior work on the building at no charge for a year. A redevelopment group proposes to do exterior work on the building at no charge for a year.
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TIFFIN -- If Seneca County tears down its 1884 courthouse, it would be the first Ohio county since 1970 to demolish a historic courthouse and the first and only Ohio county to tear down a courthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Seneca County has all the makings for a big success story if you choose to save that courthouse," Franco Ruffini, deputy State Historic Preservation officer, told county commissioners yesterday.

"Does Seneca County want to become the first Ohio county in history to tear down a courthouse listed on the National Register? Who are we? Is that us? We can do better."

Mr. Ruffini was among many state and local preservation advocates who pleaded with commissioners to move off the path to demolition and consider mothballing the downtown landmark until funding becomes available to renovate it and put it back into public use.

David Carroll, legal counsel for the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group, outlined a proposed lease agreement that calls for the redevelopment group and the Tiffin Historic Trust to mothball the building and make improvements to its exterior -- at no cost to the county.

For $1 a year, the groups would lease the courthouse and assume responsibility for insurance, utilities, mothballing the building to federal standards, replacing the windows on the sides of the courthouse that face East Market and South Washington streets with original or replicas of the original windows, and creating a $25,000 maintenance fund.

"The whole idea of this lease is for there to be not only no expense to Seneca County but to save Seneca County $400,000 in demolition [costs]," Mr. Carroll said, adding that commissioners could terminate the lease "at any time that [they] decide to put the building to a public use."

As an alternative to the lease proposal, group member Dwight McCabe outlined a plan to do the renovation project now by having a third party create a reserve account of $280,000 that would be used to pay whatever portion of the county's annual loan payment it could not afford in any given year.

The county would repay that money as it was able to do so, he said.

"I personally am not ready to throw in the towel and have to explain to my two young kids someday why we didn't achieve anything here," an emotional Mr. McCabe said.

Commissioner Dave Sauber thanked the group and said he planned to study the proposals, but his two fellow commissioners were silent.

Commissioners Jeff Wagner and Ben Nutter have said the time has come to demolish the courthouse. With the steep reduction in local government funds imposed by the state legislature, they contend that the county cannot afford to take on a $5 million low-interest loan for the renovation project.

Mr. Sauber has not supported demolition or renovation, saying the county can't afford either one.

Mr. Wagner said after yesterday's meeting that he would not consider the redevelopment group's proposed alternatives to demolition.

"I have not changed my mind," he said. "The decision has been made. We're gonna proceed."

The board is scheduled to open demolition bids Nov. 8 -- something several courthouse supporters begged commissioners to reconsider.

Franklin Conaway, president of the redevelopment group, asked the board to re-examine the top-notch renovation plans created for the county by his group at its own cost, whether the building is renovated now or in the future.

"To date there has been no money expended by the county for this plan, and that's OK with us," Mr. Conaway said. "What's not OK with us, after all this time and effort, is to be talking about demolishing this asset and this resource and taking it away from the citizens of Seneca County forever.

"We want to ask you from the bottom of our hearts -- I'm actually pleading with you -- to not move forward with this idea of demolition."

Tiffin resident Mary Lewis told commissioners her comment would be short.

"I have a new sign," she said simply, then held up a placard that read, "Don't tear down our courthouse."

Theresa Sullivan, vice president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, said commissioners seem to be under the impression there is no public support for renovating the courthouse when more than 200 letters have been written in support of it to the local newspaper.

She ended the meeting by reading one of those letters -- written last December by Mr. Nutter -- in which he said he knew many people would prefer to tear down the courthouse and make the area a park.

"The problem with this plan is it does nothing to address the failings of our current court buildings," Mr. Nutter wrote and Ms. Sullivan read. "All the residents of Seneca County should understand that by federal law, we must provide access to our court system to anyone and everyone who wants it, and if we fail to do so, a federal judge could order us to build a facility that is in compliance.

"So tearing down the old courthouse and building nothing or just doing nothing are not viable options because, while they may be cheaper in the short run, they will most assuredly be more expensive in the long term."

Mr. Nutter could not be reached for comment after the meeting.

Stephen George, director of special projects for Gov. John Kasich, attended yesterday's meeting but did not address the board. He said afterward that the governor had asked him to "come up and listen attentively to the various concerns of what people are saying."

"I think there is a great deal of respect for the tough economic times that everyone is in and that's true with every local government, but also courthouses are important things, and it's certainly evident that people have passion for this building and so we're interested in learning more about it," he said.

Mr. George, who later toured the courthouse with Mr. Conaway, said he could not say how the state could help or what the governor's position was on the issue.

"I will say it's hard not to be terribly impressed by the amount of effort that has been put into this," he said. "I think we would like a happy outcome here, but we're not sure what that is just yet."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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