COLUMBUS - The state of Ohio has been willing to reach into its pockets, sometimes very deeply into its pockets, to preserve and restore historic structures.
But which projects are deemed worthy is largely a subjective political process left to the whims of lawmakers who control the state's capital budget, a two-year blueprint setting borrowing priorities for brick-and-mortar projects across the state.
Ohio has poured hundreds of millions of dollars over the years into restoring the Ohio Statehouse, opera houses and theaters, train stations, homesteads of historic figures, libraries, schoolhouses, and even the occasional county courthouse.
But for every preservation triumph - be it Toledo's Valentine Theatre in Toledo, or Adena, Gov. Thomas Worthington's mansion in Chillicothe - there's an Ironton High School, the classical-style 1922 building that preservationists wanted to save but recently fell victim to the wrecking ball.
"It depends on your General Assemblyman or woman," said Thomas Palmer, executive director of the Springfield-based Preservation Ohio, one of two statewide nonprofit historic preservation organizations. The group has the Seneca County Courthouse at the top of its most-endangered list.
"Getting in the capital budget is a political thing," he said. "A project not only has to be vetted, but it also has to be championed. You need a good project, but you also need a real champion to buy into that and understand what the project is all about."
Rep. Jeff Wagner (R., Sycamore), represents Seneca County and is one of the many former Seneca County commissioners who failed to maintain the county's courthouse in the past.
Last week he said the county has never applied for state capital grants to keep up the historic courthouse, but now he's willing to help them seek state money to either renovate or demolish the courthouse.
More recently, as the state has ramped up its school construction efforts, school buildings have emerged as the new historic and architectural preservation battleground.
"Every week we lose another historic school ," said Mr. Palmer. "The cards are stacked against communities that want to do anything with them. Demolition is subsidized."
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The Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission, which oversees capital budget spending on such things as museums and public sports facilities, plays no role in advising lawmakers on which projects to fund.
"The legislature makes all the decisions as to which projects receive appropriations and how much," spokesman Jessica Fagan said. "Those projects that meet the definition of cultural facility are assigned to us."
Over the years, the state, through its capital budget, has tackled some massive restoration projects, the most obvious being the restoration of the 1861 Ohio Statehouse and its connected structures. The six-year project in the 1990s was designed not only to restore the Capitol to its historic grandeur but also to fix areas that had fallen into disrepair and add modern amenities.
The project cost $120 million and was spread over multiple two-year capital budgets.
The state borrowed about $80 million to restore the former Ohio Departments Building, an Art Deco structure constructed during the Great Depression along the Scioto River in Columbus, and transform it into the Ohio Supreme Court's new home.
Lawmakers rallied behind the restoration of the historic Valentine Theatre in downtown Toledo, earmarking $18.5 million in borrowed funds spread over multiple capital budgets. In 2001-02, as Ohio approached its 2003 bicentennial, the state provided nearly $3.9 million for Adena's restoration.
But few grants approach those kinds of numbers. The vast majority measure in the low hundreds, if not just tens, of thousands of dollars.
The last capital budget that contained any money for a courthouse was 2001-02, possibly because the cash-strapped state has not put any general revenue fund dollars into the last few capital budgets to supplement borrowed money through bonding. The state's various bond funds specify such things as arts and sports facilities, highway safety, schools, higher education, parks, prisons, and other purposes, but there's no mention of historical preservation.
"One would hope that all of the appropriations in the capital budget would be based on some relatively objective and predictable criteria," Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland) said. "Unfortunately, that's not always the case.
"In fact, if you look at some of the capital budgets, you'll see what Wood County got in the last capital budget," he said. "Then look at my district. You'll see that those who sit in positions of hierarchy of the legislature seem to do better in the capital budget process. I would rather see it as a merit-based, objective process."
Mr. Grendell said he would prefer a system similar to that governing Ohio's local public works dollars, in which local committees objectively measure a project's worth and set priorities for funding.
Joyce Barrett, interim executive director of Heritage Ohio, a second nonprofit statewide organization, said Seneca's decision to raise its neglected 1884 courthouse stands out because no county has torn down a 19th-century courthouse since Franklin County 30 years ago.
"You can't find another courthouse that had been torn down for years because it isn't done anymore," she said. "Buildings are lost all the time because they say it costs too much to save them, but that isn't necessarily true.
"In Seneca County, for instance, the issue is not necessarily about dollars but what does this community value," she said. "When people make decisions made on values rather than dollars, they usually make better decisions."
Contact Jim Provance at:
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