It’s not a place most people want to visit, but it’s a place nobody wants to lose, either.
Since 1874, locals and tourists alike have been climbing the stairs of the Brown County Courthouse to speak their piece and hear their fate.
Since 2013, county officials, preservation experts and the public have been discussing how to bring courthouse functions into modern times, without compromising the building’s character.
The jury’s still out on that decision.
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The courthouse is part of a historic district that’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983. It was built on the same site as two previous courthouses: the original log one built around 1837 and a brick one that burned in 1873.
The 143-year-old building isn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act; energy efficiency is poor; parking can be hard to come by; office workers in the courthouse and other county government-owned buildings say space is inadequate; and the courthouse has been showing signs of physical stress in its brick work.
A new citizen committee was convened this summer to take another look at all the options and make a recommendation back to the public and county leaders.
The biggest concern was — and still is — security, said Brown Circuit Judge Judith Stewart. While the court does have a metal detector at the courtroom entrance and an armed bailiff inside, the metal detector is rarely turned on and isn’t manned. And if the bailiff is in the courtroom, he isn’t readily available in case of a threat downstairs, Brown County Clerk Brenda Woods said.
The judge’s security concerns aren’t just about staff; they’re also about the inmates — especially juveniles — walking through public spaces.
A plan promoted by the county commissioners in 2013 was soundly defeated by taxpayers. It would have added a large addition to the back of the current courthouse and raised property taxes to pay for it.
Taxpayers who were surveyed after that said they preferred to make “emergency fixes” only. Little such work has been done, besides tuck-pointing to the bricks and mortar, adding security mirrors in several offices, repairing windows, and repairing sidewalks and entryways for ADA compliance.
The League of Women Voters of Brown County conducted another survey at the Brown County Fair this year, and 57 of the 161 respondents said they wanted to see the current courthouse renovated. Twenty-six said the wanted to see it renovated and expanded, 20 said they wanted to move the court elsewhere, and 28 people didn’t answer that central question, said League member and courthouse committee member Pam Raider.
Historic preservation expert James Glass studied three options in 2014: building an addition, doing emergency fixes only and building a brand-new courthouse. He’ll give an updated presentation Oct. 1, sponsored by Peaceful Valley Heritage.
In Glass’ opinion, the most likely options now are to do renovations that would allow court to continue functioning on the second floor for the foreseeable future; or to build a new court building elsewhere to house court-related offices, and move real estate-related offices to the courthouse, like the recorder, assessor and auditor.
How much either of those options would cost and how it would be paid for are questions without any clear answers yet. County commissioner Diana Biddle said about $240,000 is available for courthouse work in the 2018 budget, among all line items.
There are also other, less tangible considerations besides funding and square footage. One big one is that it’s always been this way, committee members said. Since this county has had a government, court has been convened at this corner.
“My heart is with staying downtown in the current courthouse, and it could be made to work. But function-wise, a new building would certainly be the easier way to go, and could do a lot more,” Stewart said.
“I think you can make it work either way; it’s just what the community decides is in their best interest.”