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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2008

Seneca County courthouse rehab under port cheaper than new

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Allowing the local port authority to renovate Seneca County's historic 1884 courthouse could save the county nearly $2 million over the cost of demolishing it and building new, county commissioners were told yesterday.

Commissioners made no decision on the landmark's future but asked the Seneca County Courthouse Development Group to provide it with more detailed information about the estimated $7.3 million cost to restore the building for the county's common pleas courts and clerk of courts office. The estimate included financing the project with $2.6 million in grants, which would make the county's renovation's cost about $5 million compared to the $6.9 million it planned to spend to raze the courthouse and build a smaller one.

Commissioner Ben Nutter was the first to express skepticism.

He questioned how the development group can support a $7.3 million estimate when the last renovation estimate commissioners received was close to $11 million. He said he was uneasy about giving the development group the go-ahead when he doesn't know the real cost of the project.

"One of the difficulties I've struggled with in the past four years when dealing with restoration versus removal and replacement is just that, that we would have to venture down a path prior to knowing what the numbers are," Mr. Nutter said.

While promising to deliver information that will put the commissioners at ease, Franklin Conaway, a preservation consultant who heads the development group, said the group had done its homework and felt confident with the figures it provided.

"We have had a sufficient number of contractors in the building and professionals with years of experience to tell you that we think we have an excellent feel for both the problems that face that building but also the opportunities," Mr. Conaway said.

He said the project could be done less expensively because it would not have to be publicly bid and could attract close to $3 million in grants.

"The reason that building can attract grants is because of architectural significance, No. 1, and No. 2, its catalytic nature in fostering and supporting other development projects in the downtown," Mr. Conaway said.

"I want to make it very clear that in talking to state government officials, federal government officials, and representatives of private foundations, we have had very positive responses with respect to putting money into this building."

He told commissioners the group would hire contractors from Seneca County to do about 90 percent of the work. Only some specialized work, such as the exterior stone renovation, would be done by out-of-town contractors, he said.

Jerry Arkebauer, a member of the development group and consultant on port authorities, explained how the project would work if commissioners choose to have the Sandusky County-Seneca County-City of Tiffin Port Authority oversee renovation.

Under that scenario, commissioners would transfer ownership of the courthouse to the port authority at no cost then enter into a six-month lease that would require the county to pay for maintenance and insurance on the building but make no rental payment. During the six months, the port authority would apply for grants and hire a construction management firm to oversee the project.

Whatever costs are not covered by grants would be paid for through a port authority bond issue or low-interest loans and repaid through a 20-year lease between the port authority and the county, Mr. Arkebauer said. At the end of the 20-year lease when the debt is retired, the county would be able to buy the courthouse for $10,000.

Dwight McCabe, a member of the development group and principal of the McCabe Companies of Plain City, Ohio, said if commissioners turned the building over to the port authority next month, construction could begin as early as July, and the courts could occupy it by August, 2010.

He said if the county restored the 1884 courthouse, the building would "have double the value of a new one" and a far longer life.

In its written proposal, the development group also outlined a plan under which the port authority would transfer ownership of the courthouse to a limited liability corporation that would renovate the building and take advantage of state and federal tax credits.

Mr. Conaway said that option would be the least expensive, but it raises a number of legal questions that have not yet been answered. He focused primarily on the port authority renovation plan.

Commissioner Dave Sauber said he would need to be convinced the project was viable before the end of the year when the low demolition bid the county received will expire.

"It wasn't as detailed as I wanted. I think it was another presentation of ifs," Mr. Sauber said after the meeting. "They need to show me some numbers."

Commissioner Mike Bridinger, who has been an advocate of renovating the courthouse, said the development group wants to save the building and so does he.

"I think we're going down the path toward some very good things for that building," he said afterward.

Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, attended the meeting and left encouraged by what appeared to be a new approach to the courthouse issue.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions, but I think the discussion now is 'How can it be done?' rather than 'It can't be done,'•" he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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