TIFFIN - Seneca County commissioners listened intently yesterday as architect James Bell laid out his idea for creating new space for juvenile and probate courts while preserving the 1884 courthouse.
The plan, which calls for building a below-ground addition on the lawn facing Washington Street and renovating the old courthouse in two phases, was especially appealing when Mr. Bell suggested the first phase of renovation could be done with no local tax dollars.
"If, and this is a big if," he said. "If the governor's office is willing and can follow through with $2 million and the local preservation group could [raise
the money for] the dome, this could be done with literally no county funds."
Keith Dailey, spokesman for Gov. Ted Strickland, confirmed yesterday that the governor remained committed to seeking $2 million in state funding for the courthouse, whether that be for the city of Tiffin to buy the courthouse for $500,000 and renovate it or for the county to preserve it.
"The governor is committed to making $500,000 available up-front and would then seek to find the additional $1.5 million, presumably for renovations," Mr. Dailey said, adding that the governor had tried to call Tiffin Mayor Jim Boroff yesterday but had not reached him.
"This is an offer that is available to the city of Tiffin and the mayor for their taking the offer into consideration, but if the city ultimately decides against a purchase, the governor will continue talking with the commissioners and other stakeholders to find other options to prevent demolition," Mr. Dailey said.
He could not say where the money would come from. The state's capital budget has been signed.
The commissioners agreed the $2 million was a key factor in whether they could seriously consider Mr. Bell's proposal.
"It's a great concept. I think we need to investigate it to the max," Commissioner Mike Bridinger said after the meeting. "I feel the largest element is the governor's $2 million and his commitment to the Seneca County courthouse. I feel that's a vital piece of the pie. We need more than conversation. We need a commitment."
Last winter, the governor promised to seek $2 million in state funding to renovate the courthouse if Seneca County voters approved an $8.5 million bond issue in March. The measure was defeated, and most assumed the offer was off the table.
Then, late last week, the governor's office contacted Commissioner Ben Nutter and Mayor Boroff to again express interest in saving the courthouse.
The city recently declined an offer to buy the downtown landmark, saying it had neither the money to take on the building nor a purpose for using it.
While that remains the city's position, Commissioner Dave Sauber said if the governor renewed his $2 million offer, commissioners could consider Mr. Bell's plan.
"I think it's a good idea, but the governor's $2 million - we need to rely on that," Mr. Sauber said. "And I've yet to see anybody put together any money for the dome."
Theresa Sullivan, president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, said the group was committed to raising the money needed to restore the courthouse's original clock tower.
She was happy to see commissioners mulling over Mr. Bell's proposal.
"I think they're open to something they never thought of and I think they're open to taking a second look at it, and that's all we can ask for," she said.
Mr. Bell, a native of Seneca County who lives in Bowling Green, said the first phase of renovation, including new windows, a new clock tower, and reconstruction of the courthouse steps, could be done for an estimated $2.5 million.
With $2 million in state funds and $590,000 raised by the Tiffin Historic Trust for the clock tower, he said, it would not require any county dollars.
The second phase of renovation was estimated at $5 million.
Mr. Nutter said he liked that the proposal addressed the need for new space for the juvenile and probate courts and, long-term, would provide space in the 1884 courthouse for county offices now in other buildings.
Mr. Bell told commissioners building below ground is "the cheapest space you can build" and results in greener, more energy-efficient office space.
He estimated a subgrade addition that created 16,000 square feet of usable space would cost about $4.4 million.
"What you've said makes a lot of sense," Mr. Sauber said.
Commissioners are to meet a third time with Tiffin's Architectural Board of Review on Thursday to discuss alternatives to demolishing the downtown courthouse. Mr. Bell suggested they study his proposal before then.
"If there ever was a time to think outside the box, now is the time," Mr. Bell said.
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