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TIFFIN — With the fenced-off Seneca County Courthouse as a backdrop, Tiffin’s Mayor-elect Aaron Montz took the oath of office Friday, pledging his personal support for the preservation of the 1884 building.
Demolition equipment is in position, though, ready to begin its dismantling on Tuesday.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed that maybe we’ll be lucky and get some sort of judicial order, but I’m not going to hold my breath,” Mr. Montz said just before the brief swearing-in ceremony.
Although Seneca County’s common pleas judges have the authority to halt demolition by ordering commissioners to provide adequate space for the justice system, it seemed unlikely that would happen before Tuesday.
Last week, a group of county taxpayers asked the Ohio Supreme Court to stop demolition and ultimately order commissioners to follow through with an earlier plan to renovate the courthouse, but the justices denied their motion for an emergency order in the case.
On Friday, the group filed a voluntary dismissal of the case with the high court. Their attorney, David Carroll, had said there was no point in pursuing the lawsuit, because without an order to stop demolition, the litigation could not proceed more rapidly than the bulldozers.
With rain drizzling on a crowd of well-wishers, Mr. Montz said he wanted to take the oath in front of the courthouse because he doesn’t want people to forget the grand old building.
“Get pictures. Keep it in your memory,” the 2nd Ward councilman said after being sworn in by city Law Director Brent Howard.
“Maybe something can happen in the next few days to keep it from [being demolished].”
Standing under an umbrella, City Council President Paul Elchert said it’s sad to see what’s happening, but he emphasized, “It’s county business.”
“I think other communities could learn from this, because probably for the last 40 years commissioners did not invest in the courthouse,” he said. “Like anything, it takes a lot of money to bring back something that’s been let go for that long.”
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Janet Dell-Freeman, a former county commissioner, joined the gathering with her husband, George Freeman.
“This is a day of hope and despair. Hope with our new mayor, and despair with what they’re going to do,” she said, looking at the courthouse.
Throughout the decade-long debate over whether to renovate or replace the historic courthouse, city officials have remained publicly neutral.
Tiffin Mayor Jim Boroff, who was defeated in the Republican primary by Mr. Montz, said Friday in a telephone interview that he’s comfortable he did “what was appropriate” regarding the courthouse controversy.
“Personal feelings not withstanding, you have to recognize the divisions of government,” Mr. Boroff said, explaining that the city can’t impose its will on the county any more than the county can tell the city what to do.
“We support them in whatever decision they made as commissioners, but we as citizens should demand a serviceable, functioning building in the downtown for our county government system,” he said. “If they destroy this building, if they level it, then they better start moving to replace it with something that’s viable, something we can be proud of.”
Mr. Montz, 26, said he believes a restored courthouse could be the focal point of a revitalized downtown — much like the one he saw in the southeastern Indiana city of Madison, where he spent much of this week with courthouse supporter George Freeman.
Mr. Freeman said he formerly owned and operated a radio station in Madison and wanted to show the new mayor what the town of 12,000 people has done to preserve its old buildings and draw in visitors.
Mr. Montz said he was impressed.
“Every one of those people I met with, from the mayor to the chamber of commerce, all said that the courthouse has been a focal point of their downtown revitalization,” Mr. Montz said.
“It caught fire and was gutted in 2009, but once it was restored, they actually saw a massive swell of people coming to downtown to check out the new courthouse.”
Once downtown, visitors discovered restaurants and shops, and they’ve kept coming back, he said.
“It’s something we could see with our courthouse,” Mr. Montz said.
“If we get it restored, we would get people coming from potentially farther away than just Seneca County to see it. Once they were here, they would discover places like Reino’s Pizza and Paper and Ink bookstore.”
Across the street from the courthouse, David Koehl, who owns Paper and Ink and also is chairman of the county’s Republican Party, said he discouraged Mr. Montz from standing in front of the chain-link fence surrounding the courthouse for his swearing-in.
“I’ve spent enough years looking at enough stuff to know they pull these pictures out 20 years later,” he said, referring to news stories about politicians who seek higher office. “I just want a nice background for anything that pops up 20 years from now.”
Mr. Koehl said Mr. Montz, who made his first bid for mayor while he was a senior in high school, has a promising career ahead of him.
“He’s intelligent. He’s very hard-working. His career as a businessman was meteoric,” Mr. Koehl said. “He’s got a lot contacts, and I just think he’s extremely well prepared.”
The new mayor officially takes office Sunday.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-724-6129.