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Published: Wednesday, 10/24/2007

Governor meets Seneca County residents

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS Gov. Ted Strickland yesterday urged supporters of the restoration of the Seneca County Courthouse not to create an adversarial situation with county commissioners as he again voiced hope the county would not pass the point of no return in its plans to demolish the historic landmark.

The governor met yesterday with eight members of the Tiffin Historic Trust, but he did not commit himself to a moratorium on courthouse demolitions or even to formally writing a letter to the commissioners stating his position.

What I don t want to do is to get into bad guys and good guys, Mr. Strickland said. That will lead to nothing positive. If this works, in my judgment it s going to work because of people coming together, not because of people fighting each other.

Then the governor turned to Kenneth Davison, a retired political science and history professor from Heidelberg College in Tiffin, and added with a smile, Am I speaking naively here, professor?

The Democratic governor said he was encouraged by the receptive comments of the commissioners last week after he told The Blade he wanted time to explore funding options for courthouse restoration. But he said he was surprised by the board s 2-1 decision Monday to take another step toward razing by approving a $60,000 contract to prepare bid specifications for a demolition contract.

We were a little taken aback as well, but I wasn t really surprised. They re proceeding post-haste, said Jackie Fletcher, one of the residents suing to stop the building s demolition.

The governor met for 35 minutes with the Seneca County residents, Senate Minority Leader Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), and members of his staff around a table in his historic Statehouse office.

I may be able to use my influence, but certainly not my office to interfere with local decision-making, Mr. Strickland said. What I have suggested is that actions to pass a point of no return be suspended until we ve had a chance to look at all the possible options. Ultimately, the people of the county will have to make the decision.

No specific funding options were discussed, but the governor had previously mentioned the state s two-year capital budget for brick-and-mortar projects as a possibility. Debate on that isn t expected to begin until next year.

The residents told the governor it would probably cost about $7 million to restore the now-vacant grand old lady, as designed by noted Detroit architect Elijah Myers. They walked away from the meeting encouraged, despite the fact that they received no commitments beyond what the governor said on Thursday.

Olive Wilkin, far right, gives the members of the Tiffin Historical Trust a guided tour of the Statehouse yesterday in Columbus.
Olive Wilkin, far right, gives the members of the Tiffin Historical Trust a guided tour of the Statehouse yesterday in Columbus.
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I was hoping for some type of moratorium, Ms. Fletcher said. I was definitely pleased with his attitude. He really wants to help.

The governor questioned during the meeting how much of a time-crunch he is facing. Later, Commissioner Ben Nutter, who had supported demolition, told The Blade he doesn t have an answer for him. Mr. Nutter has expressed a willingness to work with the governor, but Monday s vote, which he characterized as Plan B, keeps the board on track for demolition later this year.

If I had some assurance of what we can expect, what they are going to try to come up with, that would be helpful, he said. Then we could engineer a ballot issue based on that for the March 4 primary [election].

Yesterday, he delivered a letter to the governor s office to demonstrate legislative unity in support of what it described as the governor s efforts to help address our future courthouse needs. The letter does not say what that future should be. It bore the signatures of local Reps. Jeff Wagner (R., Sycamore) and Matt Barrett (D., Amherst), and Sens. Larry Mumper (R., Marion) and Sue Morano (D., Lorain), but the legislators did not take a stand on the fate of the courthouse.

State Rep. Peter Ujvagi, left, greets Seneca County Commissioner Mike Bridinger, center, and James Rhodes. Mr. Ujvagi is looking at ways to fund the Seneca County Courthouse restoration to bolster the case of sparing the building.
State Rep. Peter Ujvagi, left, greets Seneca County Commissioner Mike Bridinger, center, and James Rhodes. Mr. Ujvagi is looking at ways to fund the Seneca County Courthouse restoration to bolster the case of sparing the building.
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Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo) is exploring a Texas-style state commission for restoration of courthouses as well as some form of tax credit to encourage business investment in historic preservation.

There s a lot of mud on the wall, but as we speak, it hasn t really stuck yet, said Commissioner Mike Bridinger, the sole dissenter in the 2-1 vote for demolition. He met separately yesterday with Mr. Ujvagi and the governor s staff.

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



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