Arguing to Keep the Courthouse, Citizens for Courthouse Conservation “RoundTable” with Commissioners

(Citizens for Courthouse Conservation and Pott. County
Commission “RoundTable” Meeting, August 29, 2017) | The Manhattan Mercury

A group interested in preserving the old Pottawatomie County Courthouse met with commissioners for a “roundtable discussion” at the Law Enforcement Center in Westmoreland last Tuesday night. In addition to the discussion participants, approximately 25 other community members were in attendance. The group had a prepared list of topics concerning the 1884 courthouse, most of which was generated from items brought up at a previous meeting. Ruby Zabel handled most of the questioning based on the document. An early concern was whether BG Consultants, the firm which worked on the county’s facility needs plan, was also already hired for any new work. “We hope the quality of service our firm provides will qualify us for future work,” said Clint Hibbs, of BG. “We are not contracted but we do look for the opportunity to pursue services with the county.” Also under discussion was the date to vacate the courthouse. Commissioner Pat Weixelman said no date had been planned. “We’re looking at moving emergency management down to Wamego in 2018,” he said. That would be fire, emergency management and the new ambulance department. They are already there. This is in 2018, we’ve not narrowed it down. There is some building that needs to be done there.” The big question was, however, what it would take for the county to save the courthouse. “That would be like me trying to second guess my needs in the next 10 years,” Weixelman said. It’s hard to say what would make this thing (building) work or not work.” “I agree with Pat,” added Commissioner Dee McKee. “It’s very difficult to answer this piece at the moment. As a personal consideration, any extra money for that would have to come from some other source than the tax payer. If we need to have open space or to make it functional, I am willing to have this discussion.” Zabel said that pictures presented at the July public meeting were not of the courthouse. “The stone foundation was actually the 1910 jail and the other floor tile was a stock photo.” Hibbs said that he didn’t intend a misrepresentation of fact, he was showing those photos as types of damage that could occur. Another roundtable member, Dru Clark, noted they were “powerful images” and that “people took away that was our courthouse.” “I think pictures taken of the old courthouse in certain areas would be more detrimental than those you say are misrepresentative,” Weixelman responded. “Windows are open four inches at one end. Pictures of falling trusses. I’m sure if we really want to be detrimental, we could take some pretty good pictures.” Clark said there should also be pictures of the attributes. “Beautiful old metal ceilings, or the keystones over the arch of the windows,” she noted. Westmoreland Weekly Period The Smoke Signal March 20 September 6 , 18, 842017 “There are a lot of beautiful things in that building,” Weixelman said. “But at the same time, a lot of things I imagine not up to snuff. We’re not here tonight to demolish the building, we’re here to get input.” Jim Bradley, who was in the audience, brought up paying for keeping the courthouse. “You keep throwing out how are you going to pay for it,” he said. “How are you going to pay for a new darn building? Same way you paid for this one (Law Enforcement Center). Set up a mill levy, collect and pay for it. Use the same funding process to renew the old building. You have jut one person’s opinion. Get another opinion on how bad that courthouse is. I know several architects who don’t agree with tearing it down. All the obfuscations, blowing off our concerns. I don’t agree with it. A lot of talk, guaranteed to make us forget about it.” Zabel questioned maintenance issues. “We spent $378,000 in the past 20 years,” Weixelman said. “That was for repairs on the buildings.” An audience member then questioned, “If that much was spent on maintenance… If I repair things, it’s fixed good or better. If it’s in that bad of shape, did you hire the wrong people to fix it?” “I’ll answer with a fact,” Weixelman said. “In 1960, and this was brought up in the open meeting, a misunderstanding on what took place, they voted $678,000 to be set aside for the courthouse. Now that money was put aside for 10 years, but when we dug into that resolution, that was for tearing down the existing courthouse and rebuilding someplace else. It was using that money because it was deemed unsafe at that time. Here we are 57 years later, with the same question. I think if we made it last 57 years over and above what they thought in the 60’s, the commissions have done a pretty good job of keeping it functional.” The question came up as to whether the courthouse could be sold or used for another purpose. Attorney John Watt noted, “It could be sold. The requirements are for it to go through the public bidding process. The reality is, if I was asked to recommend it to be sold, my recommendation is not to. It’s a logical place for the county to add space. Brenda Spencer, a 25-year Pottawatomie County resident gave reasons why saving the courthouse made economic sense. Some of those include the lifespan of a higher quality old building as opposed to a new building, preservation giving new life to buildings, and tax incentives. “I strongly prefer tax dollars to be spent on renovation,” she said. Hibbs agreed to some of her points. “I’ve worked with Brenda before,” he said. “I see the challenge and value of the courthouse here. I’m not advocating for raze or renovation.” The commissioners were questioned whether the issue would be on the ballot. County Clerk Nancy McCarter, who was also at the meeting, confirmed that there was no time to put it on the November ballot. McKee also noted that even if the issue was on the ballet, it would not be legally binding, it would be advisory only. One audience member told the commissioners “It sounds like a decision was made, “he said. “The courthouse is vacated. They are going to tear it down. I feel like it’s being directed that way.” Weixelman disagreed. “I hate to hear you say that,” he said. I’m in favor of letting it sit six or seven months, throwing some money at it so it doesn’t fall apart. I think that will be the consensus of the commission. The reason this was built (the Law Enforcement Center) was to figure out what to do with the old courthouse. That decision, as of 8:30 tonight, has not been made. I give you my word, it will not sit and rot with neglect. We will do what we need to get it through the winter and gather more information.” McKee also noted the building is still occupied. Don Whitten agreed. “I think you have a good suggestion,” he said. Fix it up for winter. By that time, you’ll have more stuff together. I think that’s the best suggestion we’ve had tonight. I’m all for restoring it.”