Public-private funding eyed to save Seneca courthouse


TIFFIN -- As promised, a finance attorney working with the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group on Wednesday sent a letter to county commissioners outlining a proposal to make the courthouse renovation work.

The letter, which explains how private sources would help out if and when the county could not make its $280,000-a-year loan payment for the project, was delivered just a day before commissioners were expected to consider two bids to demolish the 1884 courthouse.

Emmett Kelly, a public-finance attorney from Columbus, said the redevelopment group is asking for two things: a sit-down meeting with the county's bond counsel, its attorney, and other pertinent parties, and the removal of the demolition issue from the table.

"They've got some great financing available to them," Mr. Kelly said. "The USDA has a significant amount here to help with the renovation and there's willing private entities as well. This shows what we all have to look at in the future to get any kind of project done -- a public-private partnership."

The financing package for the renovation includes a 30-year, $5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 3.75 percent interest.

The Ohio Department of Development has a $500,000 grant set aside for the project, and the county's common pleas court also has committed $500,000.

While the USDA loan would require the county to put 10 percent of its annual loan payment, or about $28,000, into a reserve fund for the first 10 years of the loan, Mr. Kelly said private sources would place $280,000 -- a full year's payment -- in a second, back-up reserve account.

An as-yet-unnamed third party would guarantee the reserve account -- replenishing it when the county could not make its loan payment and needed to dip into the reserve account.

"Obviously the USDA wouldn't be making this loan if they didn't think the county could repay it," Mr. Kelly said. "We're just trying to provide the county with additional comfort if in any year" it couldn't make the entire payment.

Franklin Conaway, who has worked with commissioners as head of the redevelopment group, has talked to the board about the proposal in general terms for weeks. Now, the redevelopment group is ready to get down to business.

"We don't do things until the homework is in place," Mr. Conaway said. "Our homework is in place. ... It's now time for the bond counsel to be at the table, the county's attorney -- the prosecutor -- to be at the table, and the budget commission to be at the table.

"That only happens with the commissioners' blessing," he added.

Assistant County Administrator Tanya Hemmer said the letter was received in the commissioners' office Wednesday afternoon, but commissioners did not see it because they hadn't been in. They did not return calls seeking comment.

Commissioners are expected to meet at 10 a.m. Thursday, which is a regular meeting day. While they are expected to consider awarding a contract to tear down the courthouse, the matter was not listed on the meeting agenda.

Last week, the county received two bids for demolition. B&B Wrecking of Cleveland submitted the low bid of $373,000, while Dore and Associates Contracting of Bay City, Mich., submitted a bid of $528,200.

Those who want to see the historic courthouse preserved and put back to use as a home for the common pleas courts and clerk have pressed commissioners to delay acting on the bids.

"We firmly believe the proposed agreement ... will work to the long-term benefit of Seneca County and the Seneca County courts system," Mr. Kelly wrote in his letter to the board. "... Needless to say, this requires that the subject of demolition be taken from the table."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: or 419-724-6129.