City officials support retaining long-term public ownership of the Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House as Woodstock continues to restore the historic property and search for new uses for the old buildings.
A report discussed by the Woodstock City Council Nov. 15 suggests the city remain the owner of the property on Johnson Street rather than seek a private organization to take over the 1850s-era buildings.
That recommendation was largely backed by the council.
“I’m an advocate of city ownership,” Councilman Mike Turner said. “… Until such a time that I can see something in there that’s sustainable, city ownership may be ongoing, and I fully support that.”
The grant-funded report, produced by Minneapolis-based Artspace, recommends the city continue to own the property while turning over day-to-day management of the buildings to an outside nonprofit which would secure leases, handle minor maintenance issues and otherwise oversee the space.
As for what should occupy the buildings, the Artspace report suggests a combination of tenants and uses for the Courthouse, including continuing to house a restaurant and arts center, adding “micro retail” spaces and working art studios, and building a co-working center on the second floor.
“The people who are likely to use [co-working spaces] are the kinds of people we want to attract to town,” said Councilwoman Maureen Larson, who previously expressed doubts about city ownership but who now supports it.
In the Sheriff’s House, the report proposes building a history museum and adding a restaurant or coffee shop.
The recommendations from Artspace, a nonprofit specializing in property-related arts consultation services, differ from those proposed in an earlier report by a panel from Chicago’s Urban Land Institute, which was made up of architects, economists and real estate developers.
The ULI report, presented to the public in April 2015, said the city should forgo long-term ownership of the Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House in favor of giving the property to a nonprofit entity. ULI said public ownership of the buildings would be too expensive and would force the city to work outside its “core function.”
The city has spent about $2 million restoring the buildings, and ULI estimated it will cost another $5 million to complete the renovations.
But council members said the buildings are too important to turn over to a third party which could choose to limit public access to the property owned by the city since 2011.
“I think it would be easy, in one respect, to say it’s really costing a lot of money, but I think we have to look at it from the standpoint of the historical significance on the Square,” Councilman Mark Saladin said.
Councilman RB Thompson said he agreed the city should consider keeping the buildings on the public rolls and added rent revenues might be used to offset some expenses. Councilman Dan Hart said the city should remain open to a private buyer if one comes along but said he thinks public ownership might be the best available option for the property.
Councilman Joe Starzynski was absent from the meeting and was not available for comment.
Mayor Brian Sager was supportive of the city retaining ownership of the property, although he took issue with a separate recommendation by Artspace to turn over the management of the Opera House to a nonprofit. He contrasted government efforts to fund sports and recreation facilities with those to fund arts and cultural resources.
“We say, ‘Well, let’s put all this money into sports and recreation facilities,’ and we wouldn’t think about turning over the management of all of our … ballfields and our tennis courts and our soccer fields,” Sager said.
As for the Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House, the present members of the council agreed the city should progress with the intent of maintaining ownership of the buildings.
The city’s Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s House Advisory Commission passed a resolution supporting Artspace’s overall recommendations at its Nov. 21 meeting.