TIFFIN -- Calling on their sense of history, duty to the county's forefathers, and appreciation for classic architecture, state and national figures sent letters to the Seneca County commissioners Tuesday begging them not to tear down the county's 1884 courthouse.
The outpouring did not change anyone's mind, though. Commissioner Ben Nutter said he found the note from Gov. John Kasich particularly ironic.
"I think it's actually hypocritical of the governor, who has decimated local budgets across the state, to now come in and offer up a plan that would have us spend more money," Mr. Nutter, a Democrat, said after the meeting with courthouse supporters.
"If he wants to give our local government funding back, we would have been out to bid and well on our way to renovation now," Mr. Nutter said. "It's ironic that he's now asking us to halt demolition when he could be the single most important cause of that taking place."
Mr. Kasich's letter, delivered Monday and read to commissioners Tuesday by Burt Logan, state historic preservation officer and executive director of the Ohio Historical Society, did not ask commissioners to move forward with the proposed $8 million renovation. Instead, it simply asked demolition be deferred and private dollars be used to mothball the building until a way can be found to "improve and renew the building, an important part of our shared Ohio heritage."
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Commissioner Jeff Wagner, who has long advocated razing the downtown landmark, said he was a supporter of Mr. Kasich, "but he's wrong on this issue."
"This issue's been debated for years," Mr. Wagner, a Republican, said. "The public has spoken twice through elections, and it's time to move forward with tearing this building down. I look forward to opening bids next Tuesday and soon after awarding to the low bidder."
Commissioner Dave Sauber remained the lone voice for mothballing the courthouse. He said he supports entering into a lease agreement with the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group because it would be accomplished at no cost to the county.
While pleas made in person and through letters read to the board focused on the importance of preserving the historic building, those pleas had little impact on county commissioners, who say the issue is about dollars and cents, not local history.
"This is not an emotional issue for me. This is an issue of economics and good management," Mr. Nutter said. "Since we no longer can predict our future revenue, the only thing we can do is to control our future expenses."
Mr. Wagner said he considers himself a historian but believes in being progressive. He called the courthouse "a very unattractive, crumbling building in the middle of downtown. It says something about your downtown. It's time to get rid of it."
Still, Franklin Conaway, president of the development group, again reminded the board of the positive impact a renovation project could have on the community, both in terms of short-term construction jobs and long-term downtown revitalization, economic development, heritage tourism, and improved quality of life.
"When plants and factories want to relocate to a new community, they go to communities that tend to be competing with one another on exactly the same playing ground. For land, utilities, and water, they offer essentially the same packages to draw those businesses in," he said. "I can tell you those communities that have a quality of life and a visual attraction that makes people want to be in those communities have an edge on those communities that do not."
Mr. Conaway urged the board not to pass up the opportunity on the table -- a $5 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $500,000 from the Ohio Department of Development, $500,000 from the common pleas courts, and the promise of $1.6 million in private fund-raising. He suggested that private funds could be used as a backup to the reserve fund required by the USDA that would be tapped if and when the county could not make its annual loan payment.
David Carroll, legal counsel for the development group, also said a private entity may submit an offer to purchase the courthouse from the county by the end of the week. He said receiving money for the courthouse rather than spending money to tear it down would make more sense.
Commissioners have $400,000 set aside to be used to pay for demolition.
Tearing down the courthouse and clearing the site was estimated to cost $564,000 by MKC Associates, the architectural firm hired to oversee the bidding process, although when demolition bids were last sought in 2008, the low bid came in at $369,000.
Theresa Sullivan, vice president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, showed commissioners a mock-up of an advertisement to be placed in the local newspaper that includes the names of 400 people who support saving the courthouse. She said that as the Civil War raged, President Lincoln did not halt construction of the Capitol because he wanted to give people hope during a trying time. She suggested the commissioners do the same.
Jackie Fletcher, president of the historic trust, said after the meeting that she's been overwhelmed by the support the courthouse effort has received, though she remains mystified as to why two of the commissioners are determined to demolish it. She said she was pleasantly surprised by the governor's support.
"I still appreciate that he sees the value of our building, and he did say that he would like to help, so I don't see how you can be a hypocrite saying that," she said.
Mr. Conaway, who has spent much of the last three years working on the courthouse project, said simply, "This is not over."
"The building is still there, and we offered some new information for them to consider today, and we're going to offer them more information during the next week," he said.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.