Vintage courthouse committee reconvenes

After a nearly six-month break, members of Cass County’s vintage courthouse committee gathered with the public Wednesday afternoon in Cassopolis.to continue discussions on how to proceed with plans for the restoration of the 1899-built former county courthouse.

More than 40 county residents, local leaders and others were in attendance at the meeting, hosted inside the county commissioners office in the annex building. Committee members Robert Ziliak, Bernie Williamson and Roseann Marchetti updated the audience on the progress they have made over the last several months with research and input on possible directions to take the restoration project, and invited several guests to share their input.

Williamson opened up the meeting by sharing some of the feedback the committee members received during their series of presentations around the county in recent months.

Among the suggestions citizens have proposed for the reuse of the vintage courthouse include using the 25,000 square feet of space for county offices, an art center or museum, office or retail space, an apartment complex, a youth center or even a homeless shelter, Williamson said.

The committee has also considered ways of funding the restoration of the courthouse and/or possible relocation of current county offices located inside the annex building, including renting space inside the annex and courthouse or selling the two structures outright, with certain caveats, Williamson said. If a company or investor does purchase the building, it would shoulder the costs of updating the structure for reuse, Williamson said.

“We would love to recoup what we have invested in the building, and have money to help us fund new construction,” Williamson said. “We’ve had huge debates as to whether we can get that. That’s why we’ve talked with realtors. Those debates continue as to whether the market could support that. We can’t answer that question today but it has to be part of the conversation.”

To date, the county has spent around $200,000 to stabilize the courthouse, which has been closed to the public since the opening of the new courthouse in 2003. While the building has received updates to its roofing and heating and cooling systems, the interior of the building still requires extensive work, including modernizing the telecommunications and electrical systems and making the building more energy efficient, Williamson said.

“The bones are there, and the building is structurally sound, but extensive cleanup and updating of virtually every system is needed,” she said. “Whatever we do with this is going to require some money.”

Among the people invited to speak at the meeting was Cressy & Everett Real Estate agent James Ringler, who inspected the courthouse last month, he said.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult to find an investor who will come in and will be willing to sink $1 million, $2 million or $3 million into a building in remediation, remodeling and new systems, and will be able to get his money back out from an investments standpoint,” Ringler said. “I think that’s going to be a very difficult challenge.”

In spite of the realtor’s assessment, Williamson said that county residents have turned seemingly impossible projects into reality in the past, such as building a facility for the Cass County COA more than a decade ago or the ongoing restoration of the Bonine House in Vandalia by the Cass County Underground Railroad Society.

“This is a unique community,” Williamson said. “I don’t want to discourage anybody from the possibility of seeing what we can do, but I do want to discourage people from acting quickly. Time is on our side.”

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