$15 million Update Planned for Historic Courthouse

Chardon’s historic courthouse will undergo a minimum of $15 million in renovations, to be completed by next December and paid for by the county, after the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the city of Chardon in October 2020.

Chardon’s historic courthouse will undergo a minimum of $15 million in renovations, which the county will pay for, after a settlement was reached in a lawsuit the city filed in October 2020.

In a joint announcement of the agreement — which was mediated through Geauga County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Ondrey — the city and county said the primary goal of the project, to be completed by next December, is to maintain the historic beauty and stature of the courthouse, infuse the facility with needed security and facility upgrades, and allow the courthouse to continue to service the needs of Geauga County residents for many generations to come.

“Over the last several months, the city of Chardon and the county have engaged in numerous productive conversations about the future of county offices,” the statement said. “In an effort to address the shared vision of the county and the city of Chardon, the county and the city are proposing an ambitious and historic plan which will enable both the county and the city to continue to showcase the Geauga County Courthouse as the symbol of justice in Geauga County.”

During a special meeting May 5, Geauga County Commissioners officially authorized county Prosecutor Jim Flaiz to accept the settlement with the city.

Commissioner Jim Dvorak — who defeated his primary opponent, former Commissioner Skip Claypool, with 62% of the county’s votes on May 3 — said the agreement is a step in the right direction.

“Let’s face it, the courthouse is an icon of the county. Everybody’s taking a picture in front of it and everything else,” he said. “With this agreement, we are joining with the city of Chardon — they’re investing, we’re investing, to create a synergy on the square of Chardon around the courthouse.”

Dvorak said renovation plans include the erection of a sally port to allow a safe entrance and exit for both judicial officials and others.

“There’s a new (Chardon) councilman, a new mayor, so it’s a new day in Geauga County where we can lock arms with another political subdivision, the city of Chardon and (it will) be good for all the people in Geauga County,” Dvorak said. “I’m excited about this endeavor with the city and I think it’s going to be great for all.”

Commissioner Tim Lennon said the courthouse has been a topic of conversation for decades.

“I’ve come to find over the years, really, the only purpose-built facilities in this county were the (Geauga County Safety Center) and the original courthouse. Everything else was just — let’s find some space and make it work,” Lennon said, adding over the years, it’s become increasingly difficult to maintain buildings and ensure they are safe and secure.

Lennon said part of the goal with the construction of the new county building at the corner of Merritt Road and Ravenwood Drive in Claridon Township has been to reduce the county’s footprint and move into viable, efficient buildings that can carry the county into the next 75 or 100 years. Achieving that without asking the voters for an increase in sales tax, or a levy, is something Lennon said he is the most proud of, and new leadership in the city makes him comfortable moving forward now.

“I think there’s a different attitude now of working together with Chardon,” Lennon said. “Obviously, we want to see the city do well, we want to see the county do well. We both have needs that need (to be) addressed up there. And I look forward to working with Chardon on this.”

Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri was not present.

In an email after the county meeting, Chardon Mayor Chris Grau said the city is extraordinarily pleased with the agreement, which will result in expansion and improvements to the historic courthouse on Chardon Square and ensure Chardon remains the seat of justice in the county.

“As mayor, I want to recognize the teamwork approach by Chardon City Council, our staff and legal representation, all of whom helped define our objectives with this successful conclusion for both our city and the county,” Grau said. “We eagerly look forward to sharing the entire scope of this monumental cooperation between our city and Geauga County.”

Chardon authorized City Manager Randy Sharpe to move forward with the settlement during a special meeting May 4.

A Century of Neglect

Over the years, the county has made decisions about the courthouse property that have impacted the city, Flaiz said. Most recently, the county has been planning to move into  “phase two” of their efforts to centralize and modernize county facilities, as phase one — a new county facility at Merritt Road and Ravenwood Drive in Claridon Township — approaches the finish line.

On April 26, commissioners approved a $1.05 million expenditure to engage Willoughby-based ThenDesign Architecture for design services related to the renovation of existing county buildings and construction of new county buildings as part of the courthouse update.

“I think this was always seen as, you know, a multiple-phase situation,” Flaiz said. “There’s probably been a century of neglect with these buildings and planning. So, you know, there’s a lot of issues to be addressed, and even after you address this issue, there’s still more issues that need to be addressed with the facilities and we all know that.”

The new building in Claridon Township allows the county to move the service-oriented issues down to the center of the county, making those things accessible for the whole population, he said.

But the courthouse update allows the county to make an investment in the square and make what Flaiz called a necessary and long-overdue investment into the safety, security and functionality of the courthouse.

The settlement negotiated between the city and county outlines nine points of agreement related to the courthouse — the first being the city will transfer ownership of land on the north end of the square to the county, which will revert to the city if the county were ever to stop using it as a courthouse.

The county agreed to spend a minimum of $15 million for an addition/renovation to the courthouse, with those renovations scheduled to be completed before Dec. 31, 2023. However, the court could move the date if both parties agree, with a maximum end-date of Dec. 31, 2024.

The agreement also leaves off-site parking and green space owned by the county available to the city after hours and for use as public parking or for civic events, such as the Geauga County Maple Festival.

The county will increase its contribution to the city for municipal court prosecution services from the current funding level of $40,000 annually to $50,000 in 2023 and $60,000 in 2024.

“The city agrees to contribute 10%, capped at $2 million dollars, toward the public infrastructure, site work and beautification of the square involved with the courthouse expansion/renovation project,” the settlement reads.

The city shall not be responsible for cost overruns as there is a $2 million-dollar cap.

“The primary goal of the project is to maintain the historic beauty and stature of the courthouse, infuse the facility with needed security and facility upgrades, and allow the courthouse to continue to service the needs of Geauga County residents for many generations to come,” the city and county said in their joint statement.

$15 million Update Planned for Historic Courthouse