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Published: Wednesday, 4/13/2005

Village debates once-elegant symbol's fate

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
James Mehaffie works in one of the cramped offices in Bluffton's Town Hall. He says he's leaning toward new construction. James Mehaffie works in one of the cramped offices in Bluffton's Town Hall. He says he's leaning toward new construction.
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BLUFFTON, Ohio - No one is debating whether Bluffton's once-stately brick town hall needs some work. The question is whether the 118-year-old building ought to be restored or replaced.

"There are a lot of people who feel very strongly that the building should be renovated," said Eric Fulcomer, Village Council president. "Some would say at any cost. I don't know if they mean that, but that's what they say."

Council hopes to solicit a variety of viewpoints on the town hall during a public forum set for 7:30 p.m. April 21 at Bluffton Middle School.

More than a dozen people spoke out at a council meeting last month in favor of restoring the three-story town hall, whose clock tower stands out above the other downtown buildings. The sentiment was much the same as seven years ago when a citizens committee was formed to study the building's history and its possible restoration.

While that committee recommended renovating all three floors, Village Administrator James Mehaffie said other issues, primarily the village's water supply, became higher priorities and the question of what to do with the town hall was shelved until now.

The image of the 118-year-old Town Hall is everywhere, but officials say the real thing is no longer in its glory days. The image of the 118-year-old Town Hall is everywhere, but officials say the real thing is no longer in its glory days.
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Mr. Mehaffie said the building's third floor, which has not been used for years, has been condemned. A dreary staircase with a mechanical chairlift for the disabled leads to the second floor, part of which is rented to the local American Legion post. The Boy Scouts meet in a smaller upstairs room.

On the first floor, village offices are packed in with the police department. Walls are paneled, ceilings dropped, and the floors aren't level. The charm of the building's exterior, reflected on village stationery, flags, and shirts, is not evident inside.

"It's time something gets done," Mr. Mehaffie said.

A local architect has submitted a series of options and estimates to council that range from $2.7 million at the high end to renovate all three floors to $1.3 million at the low end to raze the old building and build a 5,000-square-foot town hall on the same site. The existing building has 4,000 square feet on each floor.

"What I'd like to see is for us to make a fiscally responsible decision," Mr. Fulcomer said. "With renovation, I'm concerned that we'll have significant cost overruns."

He said council currently is split on the issue of renovation versus construction. He admits he's leaning toward construction "because of my concerns about cost overruns plus if we're going to spend $2.3 million, it'd be nice to have a brand new building with a brand new foundation and brand new infrastructure."

Council has been setting aside about $150,000 a year for the last five years to use for the town hall project. Mr. Mehaffie said council doesn't plan to seek a new tax to pay for the project, although the funding question has not been decided.

Some residents say council can't ignore the building's significance to Bluffton.

Built in 1887 for $7,600, it originally had just two floors and the clocktower. The Oddfellows fraternal organization added the third floor at a later date but has not used it for years.

Lisa Robeson, who has lived in Bluffton for 10 years, said she understands some of the concerns associated with renovation, but she believes it's important to preserve a piece of the town's history.

"I hate to see small towns lose some of their history and their identity because our history is partly what makes us who we are," she said. "I hate to see the older buildings torn down for newer ones that often aren't as handsome."

Mr. Mehaffie said council hopes to make a decision this summer so that if any residents decide to put that decision to a vote through a referendum, they would have time to do so for the November election.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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