The new Kent Municipal Courthouse — and all its parking and foot traffic — will stay in downtown Kent but move to East Main Street next to the Kent Historical Society.
The Portage County Commissioners voted unanimously this afternoon to pick the site at 303 E. Main St. for the new courthouse, which is expected to be about 25,000 square feet with 125 parking spaces on roughly 2 acres.
Maureen Frederick, president of the commissioners board, said they agreed to move forward with a land swap deal that will hand the existing courthouse and its adjacent parking over to the city in exchange for the East Main Street land, which is mostly vacant except for Jimmy John's sandwich shop.
"I think the good thing about the vote is it was unanimous and we were unified," she said. "That feels good. But, of anything I’ve ever dealt with, it was the most daunting. You don’t build a courthouse every day. I’ve had people as late as last week stop in and say ‘Please don’t do anything to raise my taxes.’ It concerns people. It just does.”
The decision comes after years of debate over a location — a debate that grew intense in recent months as city officials offered several options to county leaders to try and nail down a spot.
Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said city officials were delighted to hear of this afternoon's unanimous vote supporting the land swap.
"Now of course we’ll get down to the details of how this transaction will occur and work through that as expediently as we can," he said.
The land swap proposal, as discussed so far, calls for the city to buy the two-acre site on East Main Street. It has been appraised at $980,000. The city will then hand the land over to the county in exchange for the existing Kent Municipal Courthouse and an adjacent parking lot, both of which have been appraised at $750,000.
The city had proposed absorbing the $230,000 difference if it meant keeping the courthouse downtown in a location favored by adjacent businesses and groups.
And the city is then free to pursue redevelopment or the simple sale of the existing courthouse land — across South Water Street from the city's main redevelopment block — once the new court opens.
"It allows us, we hope, to be able to put a package together that everyone will find satisfactory and get that jump-started for the courts," Ruller said. "We think the synergy and the tie-in with the downtown project will be terrific."
The nonprofit Downtown Kent Corporation, which has played a role in landbanking for the city in the past — including in the West River Neighborhood — is expected to again factor into the purchase and land swap.
Actual construction of the new court will not cost county taxpayers any extra money. It will be paid for through a special projects fund created by the county judges in July 2006. Each court case in the county carries a $20 "special projects fund" court cost, which bolsters the fund and can only be used for construction of the new building. The fund has about $2.52 million in it.
Portage County Municipal Court Judge Kevin Poland, who presides over the Kent bench, said eliminating the almost $1 million price tag for the property from any construction bonds for the new court represents a huge long-term savings for the project.
"It also eliminates the unknown factor of what the county would be able to sell these properties for," he said. "You don't know what you're going to get at auction.
"One of the advantages of the site is there’s only that one small building on the property," Poland said. "So there’s not a huge demolition cost. I think it certainly was the best option available."
The East Main Street site was a favorite for the new courthouse among the county's municipal judges, the county's project architect, the city and Portage County Commissioner Chris Smeiles.
Smeiles, who initially favored building the courthouse next to the city's police and fire stations, said he was happy to see the commissioners could agree on a site and avoid further cost increases because of delays.
"I'm pleased that all three commissioners have agreed to work together towards this common site and goal," he said. "I would imagine it will take the rest of this year in drawing the building. We’ll spend the winter time seeking bids to build the building, and if that works as it should, we could award bids and break ground in the spring time of 2012."
The expense of buying land for the project was a hang-up for Frederick and fellow commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio. Both commissioners have said they didn't want to pay for land when the county has acreage in Kent and elsewhere that could have worked.
In initating today's vote, Marsilio said she didn't want to waste more taxpayer money with further delays.
"Ultimately the taxpayers in the city of Kent and Portage County are not going to lose," Marsilio said. "My keen interest is for the taxpayers to come out at least neutral and preferably ahead, and I’m now convinced that under the circumstances that can happen."
The county has spent the past two years or so trying to find a new location for the Kent court, which state law mandates must be in Kent. But in the past eight months or so, county officials have considered 10 different locations for the court.
Frederick said she considered her duty first and foremost to hear the opinions of everyone involved and consider all the options. She recently spent time walking downtown Kent talking to business and property owners about the situation.
"I’m not going to apologize to anybody for putting a lot of deliberation into this," she said. "Early on … my priority was, quite frankly, to be as conservative as possible, and I wanted us to utilize the land we already owned."
But an overwhelming concern she heard time and again about the existing site is that it had no room for parking and a new building.
"One of the overwhelming concerns ... is the parking situation, or I should say lack of parking," she said. "People literally said please don’t cram it into that spot, don’t overburden the already troublesome parking situation that exists downtown. So that really became the focal point to me, and it became apparent if we were going to have a land swap that the only possibility was the Main Street site.”
The next steps involve the city and county's attorneys working out the legal aspects of the deal. And county officials will meet with the project architect to finalize designs and start the technical aspects of examining the site.
Kent City Councilman Erik Valenta credited all the county and city officials involved with settling on a location and moving forward on the project.
"I look forward to getting this all completed,” he said.