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Published: Thursday, 9/13/2007

Texas courthouse expert to visit, but Seneca County axes presentation

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - A local preservation group fighting to save Seneca County's 1884 courthouse is bringing an expert on the topic to town next week, but they can't get county commissioners to meet with him.

Jackie Fletcher, a member of the Tiffin Historic Trust, said she asked to have Stan Graves, director of the Texas Historic County Courthouse Preservation Program, placed on Monday's commission agenda. But after initially being told that would be fine by County Administrator Cindy Keller, she was later informed that he would not be on the agenda.

"I wasn't surprised at all," a frustrated Ms. Fletcher said yesterday. "It's just that we can't just let it go. We're too far down the road to just let it go. I keep hoping against all hope that they would somehow see the light."

Ms. Keller said she was told by Commissioners Dave Sauber and Ben Nutter that they did not want Mr. Graves on the agenda.

Mr. Nutter said Mr. Graves, like anyone, is welcome to address the board as part of its public comment period, but he did not think a commissioners' meeting was the appropriate venue for his presentation on courthouse restoration.

"If he wants to address the Tiffin Historic Trust, that's up to them, but this is a county commissioners' meeting," Mr. Nutter said. "The decision on the courthouse has been made, and at some point those things just aren't productive any more."

Mr. Graves directs the Texas courthouse renovation program, which has invested $145 million since 1999 to restore 64 county courthouses in the state. In a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Graves said he has come up against counties in his own state that were bent on razing their historic courthouse but none succeeded.

"I can understand them not wanting me on the agenda if they've already made up their mind to tear the building down, but I am a little surprised in this era of open government and taking citizen communication, that they could disallow someone to address them," he said, adding, "As long as the building is standing, it's very germane to the local citizens."

In the late 1990s, the Texas Historical Commission convinced then-Gov. George W. Bush to create the statewide county courthouse preservation program, which Mr. Graves has overseen since its inception.

"Governor Bush very much recognized the symbolism of county courthouses," Mr. Graves said. "He did most of his campaigning for governor appearing before county courthouses and he noticed how dilapidated some of them were becoming. He was very well aware of their symbolic importance, especially in smaller communities."

Mr. Graves, who is scheduled to make a public presentation at 7 p.m. Monday at the Tiffin-Seneca Public Library, said he plans to talk about how counties have rescued courthouses like Seneca County's, which have had numerous alterations over the years. He also will discuss the role a restored courthouse can play in revitalizing a downtown business district.

Nancy Rubenstein, secretary of the Tiffin Historic Trust, said the organization is paying for Mr. Graves' hotel and airfare from Texas. She said the trust wanted to bring him to Tiffin because of his extensive experience with courthouse restoration and how such projects can contribute to a city's economic well-being.

"He is a man who has worked with this. He understands the economic impact, and I'm not sure our commissioners have ever gotten the hang of it," she said.

Commissioners Nutter and Sauber say they believe razing the courthouse and replacing it with a smaller, modern court building is the most fiscally responsible thing for Seneca County. They contend the county cannot afford to renovate and maintain the old courthouse, which has been vacant since 2004 when the common pleas courts and clerk's office was moved to a new annex building next door.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger, who supports renovating the courthouse, said he would welcome Mr. Graves to speak to commissioners, but he was outnumbered.

"I have no problem with that, but the other two commissioners said it will not be put on the agenda," Mr. Bridinger said. "I talked to them individually, and they both gave their opinion that the decision has been made" to tear down the courthouse.

Commissioners currently are awaiting bid specifications that they will put out for prospective demolition firms. They also intend to gather by Oct. 16 "requests for qualifications" from architectural firms interested in designing a new courthouse.

Ms. Fletcher told county commissioners on Monday that the Tiffin Historic Trust was willing to mount a fund-raising campaign to restore the clock tower on the 1884 courthouse - an idea that officials with Preservation Ohio said they would wholeheartedly support.

Thomas Palmer, executive director of the group that named the Seneca County courthouse the No. 1 most endangered historic building in Ohio, said the organization could rally financial contributions on state and national levels.

"We're behind anything which is legal and prudent in order to save that building because it's hugely important," he said.

Local preservationists have received letters of support from several like-minded organizations.

On Monday, Ms. Fletcher presented to commissioners a resolution from the Sylvania Historical Village Inc. calling upon commissioners to preserve and restore the courthouse.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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