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by Susan DeMar Lafferty, The Daily Southtown
For the past year, Will County officials have discussed what should be done with the existing courthouse once the new one is up and running.
Now that the ground has broken on the new 10-story structure at Ottawa and Jefferson streets in downtown Joliet, officials said during Tuesday’s Capital Improvements Committee meeting that they will demolish the existing four-story courthouse across the street and keep the land for future uses.
Committee members agreed to confirm that decision and end the discussion by passing a resolution next month, stating those intentions.
Board Speaker Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort Township, said that County Executive Larry Walsh, D-Jackson Township, recently made public statements about repurposing the 50-year-old courthouse — a decision that rests with the county board, not the executive’s office.
Walsh should attend committee meetings to discuss his ideas and not just make statements to the press without talking to the board, Moustis said, adding, “I’d like to get on the same page.”
Last May, architect Jason Dwyer, of Wight and Company, said it would cost about $1.2 million to demolish the courthouse and $42.8 million to renovate it — a cost that could exceed that of a new building.
He also suggested then that a portion of the building might be repurposed to house court-related services that are not included in the new structure, such as public defender and probation offices, but noted that whatever the future use, it should be considered a long term investment.
Many other ideas for the site have been tossed around, including using it for a new health department facility, consolidating county services that are now in rented space, or creating a mix of public, private and commercial uses.
Walsh said he is aware of the discussions, but there has been no resolution and no public input on this issue.
“As executive, I feel I have the right to let people know my opinion. I am not set on tearing it down,” he said later Tuesday.
Rather than rip out every courtroom there, keeping a few there “could come in handy,” he said.
“If my opinion is not liked, I’m OK with that. But not being able to express an opinion is difficult to accept,” he said. “I listen to opinions all the time, warranted or not.”
“I wasn’t laying down the law. I don’t have authority to do that,” Walsh said, adding that if the board wants to knock it down, he would go along with that decision.
When that structure was built in 1967 it held all of county government, and evolved over time as the county grew, Walsh said.
Committee member Mike Fricilone, R-Homer Glen, said it is “unfortunate” that the future use of the old courthouse has become political.
“It doesn’t make sense to renovate it. We need a resolution to say what we are going to do,” he said.
Once the resolution is passed, the committee can focus on planning and exploring options for demolition to save on costs, such as allowing it to be used for training or in a movie, Fricilone said.
In the meantime, asbestos is now being removed from the former First Midwest Bank building, which will be torn down to make room for the new courthouse and is expected to be completed in 2020. Last month, a ground-breaking ceremony was held for the facility.
The committee also agreed to hire Wight and Company for $75,600 to update the county’s Master Plan completed in 2011. This will include an update of the space needs of county departments, coordination of staff operational needs and public access, addressing parking issues and providing cost estimates.
The process is expected to take a few months.
Wight also was contracted for $198,000 to design a building for a new animal control facility and a plan for the overall site on county-owned property on Cherry Hill Road, south of Laraway Road, which also houses the county’s highway department and forest preserve district facilities.
Joliet’s new city manager David Hales attended Tuesday’s meeting, pledging the city’s support for county projects.
The relationship between the county and the city is “critical and always has been,” he said.
“Not only do we all agree that we need a vibrant downtown but it is critical to show developers and the community that we are united in our long range goal of making downtown a thriving place,” he said.
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