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Published: Thursday, 1/6/2011

3-0 resolution formally begins renovation drive for Seneca County courthouse

TIFFIN -- The image of a beautifully restored courthouse with green wreaths and red ribbons in the windows graced the front of a Christmas card mailed out last month by the Tiffin Historic Trust and the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group.

After the county commissioners voted 3-0 Thursday to proceed with the courthouse renovation, Franklin Conaway said he expects to see that image come to life in 2012.

"Two years from now, Seneca County and Tiffin will have a brand new courthouse that will also be a landmark," Mr. Conaway, president of the development group, said after the vote. "I am very tired and very happy."

Supporters of a $7.99 million plan to restore the 1884 courthouse burst into applause and thanked the county commissioners for voting unanimously to move the project forward.

"I give the commissioners a lot of credit for considering all the information, especially Jeff Wagner being a newcomer to the board and having to go through all the information and updating himself and being open enough to allow the project to move forward," said Theresa Sullivan, president of the Tiffin Historic Trust.

While Mr. Wagner, who took office Jan. 1, had expressed skepticism about saving the vacant courthouse, it was he who made the motion to pass the resolution. Dave Sauber seconded it.

Before casting his vote, Mr. Wagner commented, "This resolution still does not commit the county to spending county money on the project yet, but as I said Monday it's not unreasonable to give the redevelopment group time to kick their capital campaign in gear, develop work schedules, and things like that."

By passing the resolution, the commissioners agreed to appropriate $350,000 toward the project, to accept a $5 million, low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to authorize the development group to develop work schedules, payment schedules, and "other documents necessary for the efficient advancement of the project."

"This pulls the trigger," Jim Seney, a member of the development group, said afterward.

Officials from the development group told the commissioners during a lengthy meeting Dec. 27 that it was imperative for the board to approve the resolution unanimously because that would signal to foundations and other potential donors that the county was fully committed to the project.

Mr. Conaway had feared Mr. Wagner would oppose the renovation plan and asked the board to approve the resolution while Commissioner Mike Bridinger was still in office. Mr. Bridinger had long supported the idea of saving the courthouse, while it had been unclear how Mr. Wagner would vote.

Earlier this week, Mr. Wagner said he still believed tearing down the courthouse and creating a park on the site was "a darn workable idea," but he indicated he would vote in favor of the resolution in part because of the favorable interest rate on the USDA loan and because of the people willing to volunteer their time to raise money for the project. Just before Christmas, the USDA approved a 30-year, $5 million loan for Seneca County at a fixed interest rate of 3.75 percent.

Mr. Conaway told the commissioners Thursday that as of Wednesday, USDA government facilities loans were being awarded at 4.25 percent interest, and that rate was "likely not to go down again but only up. Seneca County, of course, is locked in at 3.75 percent interest."

Ben Nutter, president of the board of commissioners, said the interest rate was key.

"That half percent makes a huge difference," he said.

In addition to the USDA loan and $350,000 from the county, the project also would be paid for with $500,000 from the Ohio Department of Development and $500,000 from the Seneca County Common Pleas Court.

The development group has pledged to raise $1,645,000 from foundations and private donors in a capital campaign that has so far been in a silent phase.

The resolution includes language that says the capital campaign should proceed "with the general objective of raising $1 million by Sept. 30, 2011, with the remainder of the capital campaign fund-raising goal to be reached by year's end, but continuing into 2012 if desirable to provide more financial benefit to the project."

Mr. Conaway has told the commissioners the fund-raising campaign could exceed its goal and the excess money would be used for related purposes, such as a maintenance fund.

Local preservationists who have fought long and hard to see the old courthouse preserved were jubilant.

"It's been a 10-year battle," said John Huss, a local historian.

It was Jan. 9, 2001, he said, when the county-owned Hanson Building burned to the ground just as the county commissioners were considering renovations to the long-neglected courthouse across the street.

After the fire, the board decided to use the $3.1 million insurance settlement to build an annex for the probate and juvenile courts, which were in cramped and inaccessible space.

County voters rejected a sales tax in 2002 that would have paid for renovations, prompting a decision by the commissioners to move the common pleas courts and clerk of courts into the annex building when it was completed in 2004, leaving the 1884 courthouse empty and leaving the juvenile and probate courts in the same small building.

Once the courthouse is renovated, the probate and juvenile courts finally will move into the annex that was designed for them.

Also Thursday, the commissioners each agreed to take a 3.84 percent pay cut for 2011 -- an amount equal to 10 unpaid days or $2,126.28. Last year, they took a 5 percent pay cut, which amounted to $2,768 each.

The commissioners said in letters to Seneca County Auditor Julie Adkins that "actions speak louder than words," and they were requesting the salary reduction "in recognition of the selfless efforts of Seneca County employees to maintain county services absent of cost-of-living pay increases, and in very many cases pay reductions."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com, or 419-724-6129.



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