Rumors about the county’s courthouse being sold for $1 to a private entity – or being abandoned and even demolished – led to a packed room during the commissioner’s meeting Tuesday morning.
The rumor, shared through social media and emails, got serious traction Monday and spread exponentially. Commission President Phillip Marshall said he witnessed the rumor’s growth late Monday and was, as a result, restless in the overnight hours leading up to the commissioner’s Tuesday, Feb. 7, meeting.
When asked if the rumors were true, Marshall said they weren’t, commenting, “We all love the building, too.”
The crowd was told about the serious structural problems the courthouse has. Those problems are dire enough that officials are concerned about the safety of the county’s employees who work there and the public that uses the building to conduct business. Marshall said experts have said the building may not withstand strong straight line winds or a minor earthquake.
Washington Council President Todd Ewen attended the meeting. He likened the work done over the years to the courthouse to putting “Band-Aids on a broken arm.”
“The old girl needs some help,” Ewen said.
Among the questioners was Greg Sekula, director of Indiana Landmarks. He provided information to the commissioners about architectural firms that could conduct a holistic study of the historic building. Some architectural firms keep a structural engineer on staff so the study could include details on what work must be done to restore the building and the cost of the work as well as suggest 21st Century uses for it, Sekula said. He roughly estimated the cost of such a study could range from $15,000 to $25,000. When officials were asked if the county has the money for the study, Auditor Randall Bills said it doesn’t. Sekula suggested the county request proposals from architectural firms to get a better idea of the study’s cost.
The Washington County Courthouse was among the state’s landmarks to be given “most endangered” status last year. At the meeting, Sekula said the building was “iconic.”
“It demands and deserves your attention, love and respect,” Sekula said. He acknowledged the county has made efforts to fix the building, but a comprehensive rehabilitation is needed.
Ewen took responsibility for an offhanded comment he made months ago about selling the courthouse for $1 – a remark he said he made to draw attention to the county’s ongoing struggle to fix the building with limited resources. He passed around a signup sheet for those who attended the meeting so they could share their contact information and participate in a group or committee tasked with leading the effort to fix the courthouse and to help find the money to do it.
Sekula said a private nonprofit could tap into financial sources not available to government entities. It’s possible the courthouse group could join forces with an existing nonprofit, like the historical society.
Anyone interested in helping with the effort to restore the courthouse is asked to call the Auditor’s Office at 812-883-4805 and share their contact information.