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Published: Monday, 10/22/2007

Advocacy group ABLE plans move to Western Union site

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
ABLE intends to occupy the Western Union Building by the end of 2008 and plans to spend $5 million to rehabilitate it. ABLE intends to occupy the Western Union Building by the end of 2008 and plans to spend $5 million to rehabilitate it.
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Northwest Ohio's leading advocates for those who have trouble representing themselves are working on a new equation: five floors of equal justice = $5 million.

That's the estimated cost for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality to transform a downtown landmark that's been mostly vacant since the 1970s into a 36,000-square-foot Center for Equal Justice.

The nonprofit group, which bills itself as a "law firm for the poor," is trying to raise $5 million over the next year to gut and renovate the former Western Union building and transform it into a user-friendly headquarters for the work it does in 32 Ohio counties.

Joe Tafelski Joe Tafelski
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"When we're done, it's going to be like we're in a completely new building," ABLE Executive Director Joe Tafelski said as he stood on the open third floor of the building at Jefferson Avenue and Huron Street. "And we believe it will cost us less to own this building than what we would pay for rent to stay where we are."

Built in 1926, the five-story Western Union building is a 36,000-square-foot concrete and brick structure in a "Chicago Commercial" architectural style. ABLE bought the building - which most recently hosted two bars - a year ago for $590,000. ABLE fronted the money from its reserves to buy the building.

ABLE is joined in the fund-raising mission by a sister agency, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, which along with ABLE provides legal services to low-income and disabled clients from Sandusky to Toledo to Lima.

ABLE's board chose the Western Union building after spending months looking at dozens of spaces downtown, none of which seemed to fit its needs, board President Laurie Pangle said.

The agency, which employs about 90 people, has occupied more than two floors of the Spitzer Building at Huron and Madison Avenue for over three decades. That space is no longer suitable for a number of reasons, Mr. Tafelski said.

"We wanted to stay downtown, we wanted something with a ground-level presence, and we needed something on a bus route because of the clients that we serve," Ms. Pangle said. "It's an incredibly good building, structurally. It's built like a rock."

Mr. Tafelski said ABLE began its ambitious campaign first among the local legal community, reaching out to local law firms to fund the renovation. The group offered naming rights for certain levels of donations, and received a number of commitments.

"We were hoping to raise half of what we need from within the legal community, and the other half from the general public. We've gotten commitments for about $2 million so far, and we're just beginning the public stage of our campaign," Mr. Tafelski said.

Even though the fund-raising drive is just started, ABLE's leaders have adopted an aggressive timetable for their new headquarters.

"We're hoping to be in the building by the end of 2008," Ms. Pangle said, adding that ABLE is committed to using minority and female contractors and union labor on the project. Plans also call for the building to be as environmentally friendly as an 80-year-old structure can be by recycling water and using energy-saving fixtures and heating equipment.

The added costs of building "green" in their plans will pay off in the long run, Ms. Pangle said.

"This is not going to be a five-year thing," she said. "We plan to be in this building for 25 years or more."

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: lvellequette@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.



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