FREMONT - It's time for school to start, and to Sandusky County Commissioner Brad Smith, that means it's tour season.
Nearly four years after commissioners moved their offices from the county courthouse into the once rundown, 1890-vintage former jail next door, dozens of groups a year still stop by for tours. Mr. Smith said everyone's impressed with the $1.2 million renovation, most of which came from sources other than the county's general fund.
"Once people see it, I've never had anyone who had been against the project still be against it," said Mr. Smith, who himself once thought the old jail was an eyesore that should be razed.
As their neighbors to the south in Seneca County wrangle over demolishing, rather than preserving, that county's 1884 courthouse, commissioners in Fremont say they're glad their predecessors kept up the Sandusky County Courthouse and committed to keeping the old jail too. Sandusky County's sandstone jail and sheriff's residence closed in 1989 when a new jail opened on Countryside Drive. Wes Fahrbach, who served as a commissioner from 1982 to 1992, was part of a citizens' committee appointed by commissioners in 1995 to figure out what to do with the old jail and how to pay for it. He said they also looked at the building's history.
"The thing about the Sandusky County Jail was President [Rutherford B.] Hayes had done the cornerstone, and that was pretty significant," he recalled. "I was pretty interested in preserving it."
Robert McCartney, chairman of the committee, said he didn't have strong feelings about saving or razing the old jail, but agreed with the committee's ultimate recommendation to secure the building for a future use, because the cost to install a new slate roof was about the same as the cost to raze the structure.
"It came down to an economic issue, and the economics worked out it was going to cost the same either way," he said. "If you're going to spend the money, you might as well have an asset rather than an empty lot."
What commissioners have now are stunning offices and meeting rooms in the Victorian-era sheriff's residence with storage rooms in the still-intact jail cells to the three-story building's rear. Ornate woodwork, dramatic staircases, original fireplace mantles, and tile were restored during the yearlong renovation.
Mr. Smith said the project would never have been done if the county had to pay for it with local dollars. Instead, commissioners worked with then-State Rep. Rex Damschroder to get $300,000 in state capital funds. They secured $150,000 from a state-funded revolving loan fund, used $158,700 in federal community development block grants, $300,000 from a tri-county solid waste district to spend on recyclable materials used in the project, and another $300,000 in income from a county-owned senior housing complex.
They're proud to say they spent less from the county's general fund to save the building than it would have cost to tear it down and build a parking lot.
"If you're ever in any of these old buildings, you know you can't replace them," commissioner Terry Thatcher said. "You can't even begin to replace the architecture that's in them or the wood that's in them. Even if you could find the stuff somewhere, you couldn't afford to do it, and once you fix them up, they're so solid. I'm a big fan of preserving what you can when you can, because structurally they're far superior to what you can build."
Commissioners are working on a plan to add an office building behind the jail and courthouse to house the county treasurer, auditor, and recorder, freeing the entire courthouse for the judicial system. The proposal calls for about $1 million in courthouse renovations and $3 million to build a 12,000-square-foot office building and atrium connecting the three buildings and providing a single, secure entrance to the complex.
Mr. Smith said the county has set aside $1 million in its permanent improvement fund for the project and expects to borrow about $3 million for it.
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