Courthouse committee moving to next stage of project

Published 8:00 am Tuesday, April 26, 2016

After taking their case for the restoration of downtown Cassopolis’ most renowned building to every part of the county, the members of vintage courthouse committee are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work on the next step of their mission to resurrect the former seat of power in Cass County.

The committee leading the efforts to renovate the county’s 1899 courthouse will meet with members of the public at 10 a.m. Wednesday, May 18, in the county board of commissioners meeting room at the Cass County annex building. During the meeting, the three courthouse committee members will present the feedback they received during the five presentations made around the county in recent months, which will help the committee begin formulating plans on how to reuse the currently mothballed structure.

Determining how exactly to reuse a restored courthouse is the next phase in the committee’s efforts to save the vintage courthouse, which has been closed to the public since the opening of the Cass County Law and Courts Building in 2003. The members of the committee, commissioners Robert Ziliak, Bernie Williamson and Roseann Marchetti, have been working for the past several years on the project, gathering input from county taxpayers on which direction to take the project.

Based on overwhelming feedback gathered from surveys distributed to county taxpayers in early 2014, the committee decided to pursue restoring the courthouse versus simply paying to have it demolished, Ziliak, the chair of the courthouse committee, said.

“The residents of this county would rather us spend some money now to keep it versus spending more than more than $1 million to demolish it,” Ziliak said.

Since then, the committee, along with others with the county, helped direct some initial efforts to stabilize the ailing structure, which has suffered from problems with mold since being closed more than a decade ago. Spending around $200,000 of the $275,000 authorized by the board of commissioners for the work, the county has made improvements to the building’s heating and cooling system, roofing and other structures to contain the growth of additional mold inside the structure, work that wrapped up late last year.

“By stabilizing the building, it can sit for another 10 years, which gives us more than enough time to explore our options,” Ziliak said.

Over the last several months, the committee shared the progress of what they have done with the building so far at a series of meetings across different parts of the county, gathering additional ideas on how to reuse that building that will help determine possible ways to find the money to renovate the interior of the structure to modern standards as well as eliminate the mold, be it through grants, donations or other means, Williamson said.

“We’re trying to be responsible and to restore it in the most viable way possible,” Williamson said. “It will be a challenge, but we have the time to do it.”

Among the ideas that taxpayers have suggested for a restored building is a multipurpose structure that would house both county offices, currently located inside the neighboring annex building, as well as private businesses, with suggestions ranging from restaurants to office space to a microbrewery, Williamson said.

The committee has also recently met with area relators to discuss the possibility of selling the county courthouse, annex or possibly both to help raise money for the project, with the county either leasing out space for governmental offices from a potential buyer or possibly building an expansion to the Law and Courts building for these offices, Williamson said.

For now, the committee will focus on ironing out a definitive plan for reuse of the structure with members of the public over the course of its next several meetings. The committee hopes to have something in place by year’s end, which will be presented to the entire board of commissioners for approval.

In spite of criticism leveled at the committee’s plans over the last several years by several other commissioners as well as members of the county building authority, the three commissioners said they are committed to following a course of action in line with what the majority of the public wants — which is first and foremost to save the building,

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Marchetti said. “It’s our history, and we should do our best to preserve it.”