Clarion Looking for a Safe Courthouse, Not the Eighth World Wonder

CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – Clarion County Commissioners continue to cautiously review their options for some badly needed and potentially costly internal renovations for the historic Clarion County Courthouse.

“We want it to be a safe, functional courthouse that the county can be proud of while keeping its historical integrity intact,” said Clarion County Commissioner Chair Wayne Brosius.  “We are not interested in making it look like the eighth wonder of the world and spending a lot of unnecessary money.”

Earlier estimates for an internal renovation of the courthouse ran between $2,951,253.00 and $3,789,163.00 for one option and between $3,195,245.00 and $4,033,155.00 in another option.  The Aug. 9, 2011, feasibility study was prepared for Clarion County by Crabtree, Rohr Baugh & Associates Architects of Mechanicsburg.

“We are in the planning process of getting some renovations done to the interior of the courthouse, as the last renovation project there was strictly exterior,” continued Brosius.  “Although the feasibility study has been a very useful tool in this process, we are not bound by anything in it.  Nothing has been decided at this point on what to renovate, how to hire, or how much to spend.”

Late in 2010 the previous set of Clarion County Commissioners approved a $1.09 million purchase of the former Clarion University Health Science Education Center from the Clarion University Foundation for use as administrative offices.  Most of the administrative functions of Clarion County would then move to the new building, leaving the fate of the vacated courthouse space up in the air.

“We’ve looked at different things in the past like renovating, but it was too costly, so when this opportunity arose, it technically met every possible need Clarion County government would be looking for, and it’s just right up the street, very close to the actual courthouse seat and some of our other different offices located around the courthouse area,” said Commissioner Donna Hartle at the Nov. 9, 2010, Commissioners meeting.

Although the administrative space was needed, some people have questioned if the 2010 building purchase contributed to the recently announced tax hike for 2013.

“Although we have not taken on any new debt since we came into office in January 2012, we felt the tax millage set aside for debt services by the last commissioners was not covering the payment of the debt,” said Brosius.  “We did not want to keep taking money from the general operations of the county government to pay the debt, so we took the step of raising the debt service millage by half of a mill.”

Many Challenges Considered in Feasibility Review

Commissioners are facing a number of challenges as they look for the best course in tackling courthouse renovations.

Cost will obviously be a challenge, and Brosius wants to keep that as low as possible and keep it at a level that Clarion County can afford.

“We have not moved any service back into the building yet because we might use that extra space to move offices around during any construction that might occur next year,” said Brosius.

A decision on selecting a project architect is very close and, once that is done, the architect will then be asked for a preliminary assessment of different offices and departments to find out where they would be best suited to be housed.

“We have been doing a lot of homework on this, checking out different architects, etc.,” said Brosius.  “We have a renovation committee made up of various people set up to help us with decisions. Some are county employees, and some are from the community.  Commissioners Butch Campbell, Greg Faller, and myself, along with some renovation committee members and Judge James Arner, have visited several county courthouses and other buildings that have been recently renovated to see how other counties handled their projects.”

“It also gave us an opportunity to check out the work first-hand of architects we are considering.  We don’t want to make an important decision like this based on a brochure or website.  Some of the places we’ve visited include Crawford, Mercer, Jefferson, Somerset, and Elk Counties.”

“We also toured a few other buildings in the area that were not county government structures.  At each location, we were able to ask those officials who were involved in the projects about the architects and the quality of work they did.”

Clarion County continues to rent office space in the former Haskell Building on Main Street on a month-to-month basis. 

“We are renting the Haskell Building for Adult and Juvenile probation month to month so that when we are ready to move them, we won’t have a long-term lease over our head.  No state funding goes toward rent for probation.”

Based on the consultant’s earlier feasibility study and the research of the Commissioners, there are some obvious problems that need to be tackled.

“The heating and cooling systems need to be updated.  We are still using dozens of window air conditioners in the summer, and that is very inefficient and costly.  Only a couple of thermostats control the whole building for the heat,” said Brosius.

“The main courtroom needs some updates with audio issues being the biggie.  You can’t run a trial if people can’t hear.

“As we look ahead to the future, a second courtroom that is usable is another priority.  We are one of the last counties in the Commonwealth with only one judge, and the day may come when we have more than one.”

Brosius also noted that the building’s bathrooms, lighting, and electric are very old and not up to today’s standards.  Windows might also need to be replaced because they were not replaced with the exterior renovations many years ago.

The commissioners face many decisions for this potentially costly internal renovation to the courthouse.

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