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Published: Monday, 10/22/2007

Seneca preservationists to meet governor about courthouse

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS Sensing that the tide is turning on plans to tear down Seneca County s 1884 courthouse, historic preservationists will meet with Gov. Ted Strickland tomorrow.

The meeting comes after the governor s call last week for the county commissioners to at least temporarily put the bulldozer in park while the state explores ways to help fund restoration of the three-story courthouse in the heart of Tiffin s historic business district.

Approximately 30 people were expected to make the bus trip from Tiffin to tour the Statehouse, Ohio s ultimate restoration success story. A handful will break away to meet with Mr. Strickland and later with state Rep. Jeff Wagner (R., Sycamore), Rep. Matt Barrett (D., Amherst), and Sen. Larry Mumper (R., Marion). They also will meet with Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo), who is working on potential sources to help fund restoration of the vacant courthouse and possibly other courthouses across the state.

Our group wants to impress upon the governor the need for state leadership in courthouse preservation, said Doug Collar, a Heidelberg College professor and one of six county residents who sued commissioners to stop demolition.

This is becoming a national movement to protect and restore one-of-a-kind buildings, he said. We recognize, and I think the governor does too, that these structures really belong to the people of the state, not only the county.

Mike Bridinger, the sole commissioner to vote for restoration of the courthouse instead of demolition and replacement with a modern box-style structure, is also making the trip, but he plans to meet separately with Mr. Strickland s chief of staff, John Haseley, and other staff members.

Commissioner Ben Nutter had held a similar meeting with Mr. Haseley on Thursday. Mr. Nutter has supported demolition, but said after Governor Strickland s request to delay it for further study that he is willing to explore funding options to save the building. He hopes to deliver a letter to the governor s office tomorrow indicating the county s legislative delegation is united in its search for funds, but the letter will not specify a dollar amount.

The governor has stressed that the state could be a partner, but the county shouldn t expect it to pick up the entire tab. Ohio s economy remains largely flat and the state capital budget for bricks-and-mortar projects is expected to remain tight when it comes up for debate next year.

Our economic future has some bright spots, but there are also huge remaining challenges, Mr. Strickland said. Everything has to be approached with that in mind.

Is this the most important issue facing me as governor? Absolutely not, he said. But it is significant and it does deserve efforts to come up with a solution to accomplish the preservation of this building.

Mr. Ujvagi is looking at a menu of possible legislative options, including creation of a Texas-style commission to help finance courthouse restoration, a business tax credit to encourage private investment, and capital-budget funding.

Stan Graves, director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, last week said the governor s involvement will be crucial.

It s essential, he said. Then-Gov. [George] Bush got behind [the Texas commission] idea here. Initially, it was the governor s initiative.

The Texas commission began with a $50 million legislative appropriation and has since received additional budget funds and bond money to fund what is soon expected to surpass $200 million in restoration and upgrade efforts. Texas has about 250 courthouses, while Ohio has 88 counties.

Mr. Strickland has so far reserved judgment on Mr. Ujvagi s proposal. Given the governor s latest comments, Mr. Mumper said he wants to meet local lawmakers to develop a strategy.

The governor didn t make any guarantees, and I can t either, he said.

Mr. Wagner, a former Seneca County commissioner, said it could make a difference if the governor can locate some financial help.

My position all along has been that I will support the commissioners in whatever they choose to do, he said. If they choose to fix it, I ll try for money for that. If they want to try for a new [courthouse], I will seek capital dollars for that.

Mr. Barrett, who represents the eastern third of the county, spoke with Mr. Ujvagi about his proposals.

I told him I am on board with historic preservation as long as it fits our needs for an actual courthouse, he said. I couldn t say we should preserve the historical aspects and not expand to fit Seneca County s needs for a courthouse. If there is a way to accomplish both and the money is available to fund both, then of course I d be on board.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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