The Pottawatomie County Commission likely won’t make a decision on the fate of a more than 130-year-old courthouse until sometime next year, the commission chairman said after a public meeting where advocates for preserving the building touted its historic value to Westmoreland.
Chairman Pat Weixelman, whose commission district includes Westmoreland, said the commission remains open to all options regarding the courthouse, which has stood partially vacant since most county function moved to the Justice Center. A public hearing on the courthouse Tuesday was informative, but the commission likely won’t make a decision until “four to six months down the road at the earliest,” he said.
Members of a group hoping the county preserves the building walked away “disappointed,” said Ruby Zabel.
“There were very few answers,” she said. “I don’t think they’re really listening to us.”
The future of the old courthouse, built in 1984, came into question earlier this summer after a comprehensive study recommended demolishing the building and rebuilding it as the cheapest way to meet the counties office space needs. Bringing the building up to modern standards would cost about $1 million more
, about $3.6 million total, according to Manhattan-based BG Consultants.
An investment of about $1.9 million would be needed to improve the building’s general condition, BG’s study said. An additional $1.7 million would be needed to modernize the building. The firm recommended razing the building at a cost of $70,000 and replacing it with a similar-sized building at a cost of about $2.3 million.
Commissioner Dee McKee told The Capital-Journal earlier this week the commission likely wouldn’t sell the building to a private party interested in restoring it.
The building presents a challenge to the county, which splits most of its office function between the Justice Center and a former school, Weixelman said. To modernize the building, the county would need to invest in new electrical, IT and HVAC systems and install an elevator. Meanwhile, additions to the building constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s may have made some walls structurally unsound and difficult to work around for offices, he said.
“It’s an emotional project,” he said. “This type of decision needs common sense.”
Weixelman wouldn’t say what the preservationists would need to convince the commission to overlook GB’s recommendation, but he said the board is open to options, including funding through the state’s registry of historic places.
Zabel’s group believes an historic designation would open the door for tax incentives and grants for preservation. Money the county plans to invest in the unfinished basement of the Justice Center for a meeting room, about $300,000, would be better spent on the courthouse.
“You already have a meeting room that seats about 75 in the upstairs,” she said referring the courthouse’s single courtroom, which is unused except for rows of mid-century law books.
Clint Hibbs, an architect with BG Consultants, said earlier this week costs related to historic preservation weren’t factored into their modernization assessment. Often an historic designation comes with stipulations that may increase the cost.
“There may be unique steps required that could drive the price up,” he said.
Restoring the courthouse may be costly, but Zabel said it could boost the local economy. She pointed to information from the Texas Historical Commission, which has backed a campaign to preserve courthouses in that state. According to its website, courthouse preservation has created more than 10,000 jobs and $555 million in income since 1999.
“(The commission) should at least think about these things and whether or not it’s worth investigation,” she said.