Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Ohio offers aid, tax-credit plan to save Seneca County courthouse

TIFFIN - As Seneca County teeters on the brink of tearing down its historic 1884 courthouse, the Ohio Department of Development yesterday laid out a plan to provide up to $900,000 for renovation, plus up to an additional $2 million for the project in historic tax credits.

In a letter to consultant Franklin Conaway that also was sent to the three county commissioners, Mark Barbash, assistant director and chief development officer for the development department, explained how the state could assist a yet unidentified, nonpublic owner/developer in returning the vacant courthouse to "productive use."

"We believe efforts to leverage the state's existing assets and revitalize communities like Tiffin are important elements of Ohio's economic development strategy," he wrote.

Contingent on Mr. Conaway finding a private entity to take on the courthouse, the state promised to:

•Provide a $400,000 community development block grant and said it would "favorably consider" a request from Seneca County to reprogram up to $150,000 of the county's CDBG revolving loan fund money for the courthouse project.

•Support an earmark of up to $500,000 to the Ohio Main Street Program in fiscal year 2010 to "offset the costs of the historic rehabilitation activities."

•Allow Seneca County to amend its application for the Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit program filed last year to reflect the new, nonpublic owner of the courthouse. The owner/developer would be eligible for tax credits of up to 25 percent of rehabilitation expenses.

Under the original $8 million renovation proposal for the courthouse, that would have meant close to $2 million in tax credits. Mr. Conaway has proposed a less-extensive renovation that he pegged between $4.5 million to $5.5 million, which would reduce the potential tax credit proportionately, Mr. Barbash said in his letter.

The initiative by the development department is the latest effort by the administration of Gov. Ted Strickland to partner with Seneca County to save its historic courthouse, designed by noted American architect Elijah Myers. State and national historic preservationists say the Tiffin landmark is the most endangered historic building in Ohio and one of the most significant historic structures in the state.

The two-page letter arrived two days after county commissioners met for a fourth time with Tiffin's Architectural Board of Review to discuss alternatives to demolition.

The review board in June rejected the county's application to demolish the sandstone Beaux Arts-style courthouse, saying the plan was inconsistent with a city ordinance that seeks to protect historic architecture in Tiffin's historic downtown district.

While Mr. Conaway is working on finding a private developer to renovate the courthouse and reopen it for new uses that could range from a conference center to retail space, county commissioners are running out of patience. Earlier this summer, the board sought bids to demolish the courthouse, and the bids are set to expire Sept. 10 if a contract is not awarded by then.

Commissioner Ben Nutter said after reading the development department's proposal yesterday he was "not optimistic" about saving the courthouse.

"What they are offering us is $400,000 in CDBG funds and they want us to chip in our $150,000 that we use on projects around the community and give that public money to a private entity," Mr. Nutter said. "They want us to take our public building, make it private, and they don't tell us how to do it. Everyone keeps glossing over the ownership issue. No one has ever come up with a plan of how we get this into private hands."

By law, commissioners may transfer property to another governmental entity or by selling it at public auction.

Mr. Conaway told commissioners at Tuesday's review board meeting that he knew of three "very viable" ways to transfer ownership of the courthouse. He declined to explain them at that time but asked for a meeting with commissioners.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger, who has been supportive of saving the courthouse, said Mr. Conaway is scheduled to meet with the board Monday. Mr. Bridinger added that he was told the state would be sending additional documents that would outline, among other things, ways that the courthouse could be transferred to a private owner.

"This is just a start. This is only a segment of it," he said, referring to the letter.

He said he was encouraged that with the state's help, the courthouse would be revitalized.

"I've been talking with the governor's office daily, and there are new updates in the morning and also in the afternoon," Mr. Bridinger said. "In my phrasing, they are turning over every stone, turning over every rock to see what they can do about saving the courthouse."

Doug Collar, a review board member and one of six residents who took commissioners to court last year to try to stop demolition, said the state's offer represents a unique opportunity for Seneca County to benefit from Ohio financial support.

"I think it is a remarkable commitment by the state to invest in Seneca County, and I think that this is really a chance to create two separate projects for downtown development: the new courthouse which the county is going to build and the restoration and reuse of the 1884 courthouse which I think is a vital part of economic development in the downtown and the county," Mr. Collar said.

Mr. Nutter - who has found fault with every proposal for renovating the county's historic courthouse since he personally wrote a space-needs plan for the county calling for demolition of the structure - insisted yesterday the state's proposal was "not even close" to workable.

If commissioners were to agree to it, he said, "We've given away our public building to private interests. We're spending public money on a now-private entity, and for all our efforts we get to go find a place to put our building which makes us less efficient. If I sound not optimistic, it's because I'm not."

Mr. Collar said he was not surprised by Mr. Nutter's negativity.

"It's consistent with the position that he's taken all along," Mr. Collar said. "I think this is a great solution. I think it would make sense to pursue it, and I just think it would be a mistake to reject it at this point."

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

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