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Published: Friday, 9/21/2007

Sparks arise in debate over fate of Seneca County courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Tempers flared yesterday as local preservationists fighting to save Seneca County's 1884 courthouse clashed with the two county commissioners they contend are bent on razing the historic landmark.

Rayella Engle, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit aimed at stopping demolition, accused the board of feeding the public misinformation about the courthouse for two years. Commissioner Ben Nutter countered that all the misinformation was coming from her through her letters to the editor and statements she regularly makes at commission meetings.

"I disagree with you from start to finish, and there's really no reason to discuss it further," Mr. Nutter said.

But discuss it further they did.

Nancy Cook, another of the plaintiffs, again accused the commissioners of failing to look into grants that the Tiffin Historic Trust had researched and presented to them for consideration last year. She also said Mr. Nutter had dismissed an offer of assistance from a Cleveland-based preservation consultant without conferring with his fellow commissioners.

Commission President Dave Sauber asked what exactly the group was asking for.

"I'm asking you to listen to professionals who will tell you it will work," Mrs. Engle respond-ed. "You have a closed mind."

Mr. Sauber responded that he was not closed-minded and was tired of hearing that. Frustrated that the debate was continuing when commissioners had decided the courthouse would come down, Mr. Sauber demanded to know what the Tiffin Historic Trust had done for the last 15 years to save the courthouse.

"This courthouse did not deteriorate overnight," he said.

Bill Cook pointed out that the group rehabilitated the statue of Gen. William Harvey Gibson that stands outside the courthouse, tended the flowers and landscaping, and helped with holiday decorations.

Mr. Sauber said that while he appreciated those efforts, he was referring specifically to restoration efforts.

Mrs. Engle said the group was prepared to do that now, but she said in previous years no one thought the courthouse would be demolished.

"Previous boards [of commissioners] were always on the road to restoration," she said. " You had a plan all in place."

She said commissioners would be shocked to know how well-connected members of the Tiffin Historic Trust are on the state and national levels and what a resource they could be if the board would ask for their help.

She said she "about fell off my seat" when Mr. Nutter at a previous board meeting asked how he could get ahold of the Ohio Preservation Office. She said that seemed a ridiculous question for someone who claimed to have "turned over every stone" in the search for funds to renovate the courthouse. Mr. Nutter accused Mrs. Engle of twisting his words and misrepresenting the facts.

Delmar Goshe, a county resident who supports replacing the courthouse, said that since the people who want to save the courthouse are constantly chastising Mr. Nutter for not investigating grants and other funding sources to renovate it, he wanted to know what Commissioner Mike Bridinger had done to identify funding sources.

Mr. Bridinger, the lone voice on the board for renovation, admitted he had not investigated any grants or other sources that might enable the county to restore the old courthouse.

"Have I personally myself? No," Mr. Bridinger said.

Before the meeting ended, Mr. Sauber said he apologized if he had offended anyone. He said he should not have accused the group of doing nothing, but he wished efforts such as raising money to restore the clock tower had been made 15 or 20 years ago.

Earlier in the meeting, commissioners put off signing a contract with MKC Associates of Mansfield that outlined the firm's duties in the demolition process. Mr. Nutter said the contract included $20,000 for MKC to do a historical documentation of the courthouse before it is razed, but MKC officials told him that because extensive drawings of the building already exist, the firm could do that part of the job for $10,000.

The commissioners directed County Administrator Cindy Keller to send the contract back to MKC with that change. Once the contract is signed, MKC will prepare drawings and specifications to solicit bids for demolition. Mr. Nutter said he would like to go out to bid by mid-October, and plans to call for demolition to occur between Nov. 26 and Jan. 31.

Commissioners also canceled Tuesday's board meeting so they can be in Seneca County Common Pleas Court for a hearing on the lawsuit brought by six local residents to save the courthouse.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.



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