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Published: 7/31/2009

Seneca County's renovation foes rethink positions

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Ben Nutter and Dave Sauber long have defended their decision to tear down Seneca County's historic courthouse and build a new one as the least expensive option for taxpayers.

Yesterday, the two county commissioners said that no longer may be the case.

"Based on the best information we had available two years ago, it was cheaper to remove and replace," Mr. Nutter said. "But based on the information we have today, it may very well be less expensive to renovate and provide more space and still be able to keep a building and our sense of cultural identity."

His comments were made a week after the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group presented a detailed a plan to restore the 1884 courthouse, reconfigure the space to accommodate the two common pleas courts and clerk of courts, and outfit the building with modern technology, windows, and mechanical systems.

The group's $7,995,000 plan includes nearly $1.5 million in architectural restoration that would be paid for with grants and private fund-raising, including getting rid of the Art Deco clock tower added in the 1940s and replacing it with a replica of the original tower.

The plan calls for removing the elevator shaft installed down the middle of the four-story rotunda and tearing out the law library that was built in the top half of the third-floor courtroom.

With at least $500,000 from the state, $500,000 from the courts, and $500,000 from the courthouse fund, the county would have to borrow just $5 million to get the project done.

"The bottom line is whatever saves the taxpayer the most money is the most logical thing to do," Mr. Nutter said. "I'm not going to spend more money to tear down a building and build a new one if it's less to save it."

Mr. Sauber said he's already been accused of flip-flopping on the courthouse issue but he too wants to do what makes the best financial sense.

"It's all about the dollars and cents for me, but it's also about the value of the history of the county and maintaining that, so if it's very close, I would be in favor of doing it," Mr. Sauber said.

Mr. Sauber and Mr. Nutter said the defeat of two countywide ballots issues that would have financed renovation plans then estimated around $11 million were not votes to tear down the courthouse.

"They voted that they did not want to increase their tax base to supplement renovation of the courthouse," Mr. Sauber said, adding, "I agree with Ben that this has all been about the money up to this point, but there is a true value and benefit to the preservation of that building. At this point I see it as a tourist attraction because of the headlines it's gotten from throughout the whole United States."

Commissioner Mike Bridinger has been a proponent of renovation from the beginning of his term, and he re-committed his support yesterday.

The board has not voted on whether to move ahead with the project but it plans to meet with the courthouse group again Tuesday. Their positive comments pleased supporters of the renovation plan who thanked the commissioners for remaining open-minded.

"I really appreciate and I congratulate you and I apologize to you for some of the wise remarks I've made in the past," Bill Cook told commissioners.

Tom Breidenbach, who worked with the county maintenance department after his retirement from National Machinery, said he had long seen the space heaters and fans and extension cords strung across every room of the old courthouse and believed it would be best demolished.

"Hearing all this I have changed a lot," he said. "I think it should be preserved. It's a great building."

County resident Delmar Goshe said he wants to see the county spend the least amount of money, but expressed concern the development group was taking short cuts to keep the costs down. Group members offered to meet with him to show him the plans and estimates they have.

Mr. Sauber said he's heard in the community that with building renovations come change orders and higher-than-expected costs.

Group members said they involved not just architects and engineers at the beginning but actual contractors, and are confident they have a solid estimate and it includes contingency funds for unforeseen changes.

Columbus architect Bob Loversidge said inevitably there will be change orders but as long as planners have set aside an appropriate amount of money, the project will remain on track. He led the $95 million renovation of the Ohio Supreme Court building, which came in $1 million under budget and on time, he said.

Group members stressed that the renovation of the courthouse would be the catalyst for a revitalization of downtown Tiffin.

"Your courthouse very much plays the same role as monuments and spectacular architecture in vital cities anywhere in the world," said Franklin Conaway, a preservation consultant leading the courthouse group said. "The courthouse would definitely be the ultimate catalyst project."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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