Since I took office as commissioner Jan 1., I have had approximately 1 billion calls about the courthouse. I thought it might be helpful to write a guest column regarding where I am at with the project and the direction it is headed.
Let me begin by saying it is just a building to me. Some have strong feelings about the historical and architectural value. I will not argue over that point, because that value is in the eye of the beholder; however, that does not influence my opinion.
Over the last several months, I had come to the conclusion the old courthouse should be torn down and replaced with a pretty green space in the center of town. I had based that conclusion on several concerns including the ability of the county to borrow $5 million, the uncertainty of grants to be used, the ability of the capital campaign to be successful and past votes that were taken on the issue, among other things. I felt the court space we have is not the best, but it works. That solution would get rid of an eyesore downtown and not add to the county's debt.
However, I was never 100-percent confident in that idea, because it does not really address the space or Americans with Disabilities Act needs of the juvenile and probate court. I have spoken with all three judges. The annex building now houses the two common pleas courts; it works, but was designed for juvenile and probate. The juvenile and probate court building is the real problem.
The current building does not meet standards of the law. The space, according to a 2006 study and by plain observation, does not allow the court to conduct efficient operations, nor is the building handicapped accessible. A successful lawsuit could force the county to build something new. While I have little respect for people who file those type of suits, it is a real possibility we have to take into consideration.
The current proposal to renovate the old courthouse has a few things going for it, including some Department of Development money that can be used for renovation, $500,000 in court money that can be used, a $5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 3.75 percent interest locked in for 30 years, and a group willing to try to raise $1.65 million from private sources.
Based on those facts, the board of commissioners voted to pass a resolution to proceed toward renovation. In the resolution, we agree to set aside $350,000 toward the project and execute the loan documents. We are not committed to draw from the loan or spend any county money yet. This does give the green light to the redevelopment group to raise the capital campaign money.
The next steps would be for the redevelopment group to come back with timetables and work schedules for our approval, along with capital campaign updates. There is to be design work done so the project eventually can be bid. It is my hope capital campaign funds and other sources primarily can be used for the design work. I will work to minimize county expenses on the project until the project goes to bid, probably late in the year. At that time, it would be an all-out commitment to the project or take another look at walking away. In my mind, the two landmarks that would make or break this project are the success of the capital campaign and what the construction bid comes in at.
In conclusion, I am not really comfortable that my original position on removing the courthouse and doing nothing else is the right thing. I am also not confident pursing renovation is going to be successful, but I do not see what it hurts to move in that direction and give the redevelopment group time to raise the money. I have to be open minded enough to realize this just might be the most cost-effective way to provide for the court space and ADA issues.