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Published: Friday, 7/18/2008

Pitch for private takeover of Seneca County courthouse buoys hopes

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Seneca County's 1884 courthouse may yet dodge the wrecking ball.

A Chillicothe, Ohio preservation consultant yesterday told county commissioners he is convinced that a yet-to-be-identified private entity could take it over and turn it into "an exciting mix of cultural, government, entertainment, educational, some retail, and possibly restaurant uses."

What's more, said Franklin Conaway, the county might be able to transfer ownership of the building to the state of Ohio, which could work with a private developer that would qualify for historic preservation tax credits not available to county government.

"Two weeks ago I wasn't all that positive based on what I knew of the building," Mr. Conaway said. "My sense of optimism is based on finally going through the building. It's really great space. The other thing is the people that are standing by to help."

Commissioners seemed receptive to Mr. Conaway's proposal, which was made during their third meeting with the city's Architectural Board of Review. The review board on June 10 denied the commissioners' proposal to tear down the landmark and initiated a 90-day waiting period for the two sides to discuss alternatives to demolition.

Commissioners agreed to continue those discussions Aug. 12 with the expectation of a more detailed report from Mr. Conaway. He promised to

"refine" the best alternative uses for the courthouse and to identify what he called a "blue-ribbon" entity that could take on the project. His full report, he said, should be finished by Sept. 1.

Mr. Conaway said he had spoken with more than a dozen individuals and organizations who are keenly interested in the fate of the courthouse and would be willing partners in a viable plan to convert it to new uses. The county then could build a new courthouse in a different location, such as the former Columbian High School site across from the courthouse square.

He estimated that "selective demolition," including removal of the elevator shaft that was installed down the middle of the courthouse rotunda in the 1940s, could be done initially for $75,000 to $100,000, followed by $4.5 million to $5.5 million in renovation work.

"Not every detail would be pristinely restored for that, but most of it would be, and it would be a tremendous asset to this community," Mr. Conaway said.

Commissioners seemed to be impressed.

Just last week, the board opened bids for demolition of the courthouse that ranged in cost from $369,000 to $667,552. At that meeting, Commissioner Ben Nutter said he was prepared to cut off talks with the review board if it failed to approve the county's demolition plans.

Yesterday, though, he said he supported pursuing the alternative-use plan that Mr. Conaway proposed. What made the difference, he said, was that just prior to the meeting he learned from the governor's office that the state was looking into whether it could "serve as a bridge" between commissioners and a private entity that would renovate and develop the courthouse.

"The taxpayer and voter has been very clear: 'I don't want you spending tax dollars renovating that building,'•" Mr. Nutter said afterward. "If a private entity can renovate it and make it work, it's worth investigating."

Commissioners have said repeatedly that they can't legally sell the courthouse to a private entity in any way except at a public auction, where anyone could bid on it and do what they wanted with it. Their other option is to transfer it to another governmental entity.

Commissioners had offered to sell the courthouse to the city of Tiffin for $500,000, but the city declined, saying it had neither the money for the project nor a use for the building. The conversation prompted Gov. Ted Strickland to offer $500,000 to help the city purchase the building and commit to seeking $1.5 million to help with renovation.

Keith Dailey, spokesman for the governor, said yesterday that a number of ideas are being discussed in an effort to preserve the courthouse, which was designed by noted American architect Elijah Myers.

"The governor's staff and chief of staff are engaged in an ongoing discussion with the community leaders, and many ideas have been and will continue to be discussed as we explore options," Mr. Dailey said. "The governor has not committed to any of those ideas. His commitment is to work to provide significant state funding to ensure the courthouse is not demolished. In addition, he believes the best approach is to ensure that the courthouse remains a community asset whether at the city or county level."

A crowd of courthouse supporters at yesterday's meeting once again left feeling there was still hope for the building they consider a vital part of the county's history and a significant part of the architectural landscape of downtown Tiffin.

"I think this is very exciting and I think there are a lot of excellent ideas coming out," Lin Talbot-Koehl said.

She said that if commissioners are open to a private entity renovating and reusing the courthouse for around $5.5 million as Mr. Conaway proposed, why couldn't the county use that same amount to get it back into shape as a county courthouse?

"If it's a viable plan for a private group, why isn't it a viable plan for county government? It saves a few steps," she said.

Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, attended the meeting on behalf of the governor's office, although he has been at previous sessions with the review board because of the preservation office's interest. Mr. Ruffini said he was encouraged.

"I thought this was the best discussion they've had so far," he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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