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Published: Tuesday, 11/1/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Governor tells commissioners to save Seneca Co. courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN -- Gov. John Kasich sent Seneca County commissioners a message Monday: Don't tear down the courthouse.

Just a week before the commissioners are scheduled to open bids for the demolition of the county's historic 1884 courthouse, the Republican governor urged the board to reconsider.

"There is reason to believe that, one day, the Seneca County Courthouse can be given a new life," Mr. Kasich wrote. "If it is destroyed now that possibility will be lost -- forever. … I appeal to you to bide your time and let ways be sought that, in due course, can improve and renew the building, an important part of our shared Ohio heritage."

For years, Seneca County has wrestled with the decision of whether to renovate or replace its old courthouse, which has been vacant since 2004. After moving toward a plan to demolish it and build a new structure in 2008, commissioners reconsidered when a private group calling itself the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group came forward and ultimately convinced commissioners that it would be more cost-effective to renovate.

The board was moving ahead with plans for the nearly $8 million renovation earlier this year when the state legislature -- at the governor's recommendation -- reduced local-government funding nearly by half. With the funding cut, commissioners said they could no longer afford to take on the $5 million, low-interest loan needed to finance the renovation.

Dave Sauber, chairman of the county board of commissioners, said Monday that he had not seen Mr. Kasich's letter, but he remains in favor of a plan by the development group to mothball the courthouse at no cost to the county. He stands alone among the three commissioners in his opposition to demolition.

"Regardless of what the governor is trying to help out with or not help out with, the bottom line is we don't have the funds to do it. I'm still not willing to spend the money for demolition," Mr. Sauber, a Republican, said.

While demolition is expected to cost between $400,000 and $500,000, Mr. Sauber's fellow commissioners, Democrat Ben Nutter and Republican Jeff Wagner, have said the county has that money set aside in a courthouse fund, and now is the time to use it to end the drain on county funds to maintain the building.

Neither Mr. Nutter nor Mr. Wagner could be reached for comment Monday evening.

The development group, in conjunction with the Tiffin Historic Trust, has proposed leasing the courthouse from the county for $1 a month. Under that proposal's terms, the group would mothball the courthouse, pay all insurance and utilities, set up a $25,000 maintenance fund, and replace windows on the two sides of the building that face the downtown business district. The county would not have to pay any of the cost, an idea the governor appears to support.

"Please set aside demolition plans for the time being and allow private citizens to fund the costs and responsibilities of mothballing … until a day comes that would permit a better future for this once grand courthouse," Mr. Kasich wrote.

While the governor did not offer any direct financial assistance, Seneca County has been approved to receive $500,000 from the Ohio Department of Development, as well as a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The balance of the project was to be paid with $500,000 from the common pleas court, $350,000 from the county, and $1.6 million in private fund-raising by the development group.

"There are options on the table that are worth exploring and perhaps new ones can be developed," Mr. Kasich wrote. "We're only held back by limits on our creativity. Given that the courthouse is a product of inspired creativity, let's see what solutions can be found."

Mr. Kasich's predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, also pleaded with commissioners to save the courthouse in 2008 when he offered to seek up to $2 million in state assistance for the project if Seneca County voters approved an $8.5 million bond issue for renovation. The bond issue failed.

Mr. Sauber said Mr. Kasich could get the courthouse project back on track by restoring the local government funds to the budget.

"If Mr. Kasich really wants to help, he'll give us back our local government funds -- then we won't have this situation and we can go ahead with our plans," Mr. Sauber said. "Really, no disrespect for him. I do believe something down the road will come up to be able to save it."

Mr. Sauber said that what the development group is offering is "no different" than what the Seneca County Historical Society is doing to keep the county museum open. After commissioners said they could not afford to be in the museum business any longer, the nonprofit group was selected to lease the museum from the county and assume all financial responsibilities.

"The development group, by offering to lease the courthouse and then the county has no costs, is no different whatsoever than what we did with the museum, and we were all in favor of that," he said.

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


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