Meadville Tribune

February 4, 2014

County commissioners leaning toward expansion of courthouse to alleviate overcrowding

Talon site plans remain to be seen, commissioners say

By Keith Gushard
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — Offices currently housed within the Crawford County Courthouse in Meadville may not be divided among two sites after all.

County commissioners say they’re leaning toward an expansion of the current courthouse building on Diamond Park to alleviate overcrowding — rather than splitting operations into separate administrative and courts buildings as initially proposed two years ago.

Commissioners are expected to discuss a possible expansion of the courthouse at their public work session this morning and hold a public meeting on the proposal later this spring.

The proposed expansion would create a two-story addition plus basement on the north side of the building. It would cover John Holt Way, formerly a section of Center Street between Diamond Park and Chancery Lane, and utilize a 49-space parking lot the county owns. A new main building entrance for the enlarged building would be built over John Holt Way.

Commissioners started to look at expanding the courthouse after costs on the two-building concept had risen by more than 20 percent by last summer.

On Monday, Francis Weiderspahn Jr., chairman of commissioners, said expansion at the courthouse alone would be closer to the two-facility original cost estimate of $25.3 million.

The split recommendation came after months of study of several options by a citizens’ committee, including expanding the current courthouse and building an entirely new facility. The study committee’s recommendation and other options were presented at a series of meetings across the county that began in February 2012.

“It’s not totally formed by any means,” Weiderspahn said of the proposed plan to expand the courthouse alone.

The recommendation to split the courthouse functions among two sites to alleviate overcrowding came from an all-volunteer Community Advisory Committee appointed in 2011 by the previous board of commissioners — Morris Waid, Jack Preston and C. Sherman Allen. The current commissioners are Weiderspahn, Allen and Jack Lynch.

The committee was given the task of easing problems faced daily in an overcrowded and out-of-date courthouse that had seen its last major renovation in the mid-1950s. That mid-1950s renovation was projected to meet courthouse needs for 50 years.

It was in late January 2012 when the CAC recommended the current courthouse on Diamond Park in downtown Meadville be renovated into an administrative center and while the county-owned former Talon Inc. site on upper Arch Street be renovated into a county courts complex with some other outlying county departments moved into one of the two sites.

The CAC’s recommendation for the two buildings had an initial projected price tag of $25.3 million. It had risen to a range of $30.5 million and $31.2 million — an increase of 20.5 to 23.3 percent — by mid-summer 2013.

“I think Talon, in retrospect, was not the way to go — knowing what we know now,” Lynch said. Lynch said there were no plans for the Talon site other than just purchasing it when county closed on the deal in early 2011.

It was in late 2010 that the previous board of commissioners — Waid, Preston and Allen — first took out options to buy the Talon site for $250,000. Waid, Preston and Allen then approved the purchase by the county in early 2011.

By Dec. 31, 2013, the two-site option had a net cost of more than $4.1 million since 2010, according to figures from the county’s finance office. Those costs are for everything from architectural and design fees for both sites to demolition work on some of the buildings on the Talon site.

Commissioners Lynch, Weiderspahn and Allen said the county may be able to recoup between 50 to 70 percent of those costs already incurred.

“We’ve programmed out what the departments may need for the next 40 or 50 years,” Lynch said. “We took time to look at it critically. We have a square-foot-assessment for each department.”

Possible parking problems arise from proposal

Parking, however, will need to be resolved if the courthouse expands at Diamond Park. The proposed expansion would eliminate a total of 60 parking spaces — 11 public spaces along John Holt Way and 49 county spaces in the parking lot north of the building.

“Until the parking situation is solved, I’m not in favor of going with this thing,” Allen said. “The Talon site still is not completely off the books in my mind.”

Allen said that when he first took office in January 2008, courthouse employees began asking him if anything could be done about additional employee parking.

“It’s not an insignificant thing,” Allen said. “Employees worry about feeding the (parking) meter, getting a $10 ticket and then the loss of productivity when people have to leave the facility and go out and feed the meters.”

Allen is concerned with parking inequity among employees at the courthouse — where some employees get parking spaces, but others don’t. Allen said the parking inequity may create problems between employees.

Allen said he feels the building plan could work — once the parking issue is resolved.

Lynch and Weiderspahn agree parking is a major issue for the courthouse, but they feel it can be resolved by the City of Meadville and other partners.

“Nothing we do is going to be easy,” Lynch said. “Parking has been a problem in the city since 1950.”

“This is a big move,” Lynch said of trying to alleviating overcrowding at the courthouse. “This is not insignificant. We took time to look at it critically.”

One possible parking solution, Weiderspahn said, is using the parking lots at the Talon site on upper Arch Street and running a shuttle service for employees.

“Parking is an issue that needs to be worked on,” Weiderspahn said. “I think the long-term efficiencies of having one location versus two will save you money each year — on maintenance costs, IT (information technology) security — by having everything in one location. There are cost savings there.”

Weiderspahn said the county still may have some outside leases as it does now — such as Veterans Services, the county cooperative extension service and human services — but some other offices like domestic relations and juvenile probation would be brought back into the courthouse.

“I feel this is the most efficient and best plan to go with,” Weiderspahn said.

Commissioners were meeting with county department heads Monday about the proposed one-site concept for their input.

Weiderspahn said he hoped to have at least one public meeting to outline the proposed plan.

Commissioners said they hope to take action on the project later this spring.

As far as what the county may do with the Talon site if it’s abandoned remains to be seen, according to commissioners. Possibilities include turning it over to a local development agency; selling it all or in part to a developer for reuse; leveling the site and selling off the land.

What to watch for

Crawford County commissioners hold their public work session today at 9:30 a.m. at 903 Diamond Park, Meadville. During this meeting, they’re expected to discuss a possible expansion of the county courthouse. They also plan to hold a public meeting on the proposal later this spring.