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Published: Monday, 11/14/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Consultant seeks last-hour reprieve for Seneca courthouse

Conaway emphasizes opportunity

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Franklin Conaway. Franklin Conaway.
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TIFFIN -- Seneca County commissioners could sign a death warrant for the historic 1884 courthouse as soon as Thursday, but the landmark's biggest champion contends it still could be saved -- and renovated.

Franklin Conaway, who leads the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group, wants commissioners to consider allowing private donors to create a reserve account to cover the county's annual loan payment in the event it cannot make its payment and to have a yet-unnamed third party guarantee the account. Two of three commissioners -- Ben Nutter and Jeff Wagner -- have said they want to demolish the courthouse now because the county can't afford to renovate it.

"We think they can do the project without hurting the taxpayers of Seneca County," Mr. Conaway said. "To just say we can't afford it is not an answer that comes from an analysis of the impact the proposal we are making will have on any perceived budget deficit. Until you take that into account, it's not possible to make a responsible financial decision."

Mr. Conaway, a preservation consultant from Chillicothe, Ohio, whose intervention helped stop plans to demolish the courthouse in 2008, said he has been frustrated by the commissioners' apparent disinterest in exploring the option he and other members of the development group have been proposing for the last few months.

"They're in effect walking away from their fundamental responsibility to provide court facilities that meet the standards of the Ohio Supreme Court, as well as federal disability and access standards," he said. "Frankly, it's very frustrating because, as we have said over and over, renovation of the historic Seneca County Courthouse is the most financially responsible approach to providing those facilities."

The Beaux Arts-style courthouse, which was designed by noted American architect Elijah Myers, has been vacant since 2004, when the clerk and courts moved into a new annex that was built to house probate and juvenile courts. Seven years later, the probate and juvenile courts remain in a cramped, inaccessible building.

Mr. Conaway made his latest pitch to commissioners last week shortly after County Administrator Stacy Wilson opened two bids -- one for $373,000 and another for $528,200 -- to tear down the courthouse. Mr. Conaway implored them to delay action on the demolition bids and instead entertain a presentation by a financial team led by Columbus finance attorney Emmett Kelly. He also asked that they allow Mr. Kelly to discuss the proposal with the county's bond counsel.

While commissioners did not respond to his plea, Dave Sauber, president of the Board of Commissioners, said Friday that he would consider any option the group presents.

"I think if you look back over Ben and my terms, we've been willing to listen to everything that's been presented to us so I'm more than willing to listen," Mr. Sauber said. "I would have to do a lot of research and investigation as to the feasibility of it and everything that would have to take place, but I'm keeping an open mind. I'll evaluate everything they put on the table."

Mr. Nutter and Mr. Wagner did not return phone calls seeking comment. While they said last week that they expect to award the demolition contract when the board meets on Thursday, Mr. Sauber said he would vote no on the demolition contract.

"I'm not willing to spend the money to tear it down," Mr. Sauber said. "Nothing's changed for me."

Mr. Conaway told commissioners Seneca County is in a "totally unique and special" situation because it has been approved for a 30-year, $5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the low interest rate of 3.75 percent, making its annual payment approximately $280,000. It also has commitments for grants of $500,000 from the Ohio Department of Development and $500,000 from the common pleas courts.

The USDA loan would require the county to put 10 percent of its annual loan payment into a reserve fund for the first 10 years of the loan, Mr. Conaway said. Private sources would place a full year's payment in a second reserve account as a back-up.

"If funds have to be drawn from the back-up reserve account, we have a guarantor in place who will replenish those funds," Mr. Conaway said. "Ultimately the county would pay back any funds that are advanced, but it would be done under very liberal terms. In other words, the county would only pay back funds when and if they were available in amounts that were affordable to them at that time."

He and other courthouse supporters believe it would be foolish to walk away from the money already designated for the courthouse, not to mention the opportunity to create accessible, up-to-date space for the courts and restore a key piece of Seneca County's history. Preservation groups and officials from across the country, including the National Trust for Historic Places, Heritage Ohio, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have pledged their support for the project.

"We will be forwarding a letter to commissioners early in the week that outlines in more detail how the renovation of the courthouse can still proceed in a manner that is fiscally responsible to the citizens of Seneca County," Mr. Conaway said. "The redevelopment group believes that the courthouse can still be renovated and that Seneca County will never again see the type of financing arrangements that are on the table now. They'll never see anything close to it."

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



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