Woodstock looks to Old Courthouse’s future

WOODSTOCK – The city doesn’t intend to remain the owner of the former McHenry County Courthouse, but just how quickly it can sell it is up in the air.

“The sooner the city can get it back in private hands and back on tax rolls, the better,” said Deputy City Manager Derik Morefield, who is charged with managing the property. “But I don’t know what that time frame is.”

The previous owners, Centralia Investors, gave the property to the city as a donation in 2010. Since then, it has been tangled in litigation. The city finally bought the Old Courthouse at a sheriff’s auction in November, nearly a year after the donation deal began.

The city spent $110,000 for the acquisition.

Questions still remain now that the city has taken ownership of the Old Courthouse, but the city is short on answers.

“We’re not in any position to give you answers just yet,” Morefield told City Council members recently.

The city is moving quickly to plot a course of action for repairs and maintenance and to remedy health, life and safety issues to get the building in condition for sale.

The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so the city also is seeking the help of firms experienced in historic properties to assist with the assessment.

Money for the acquisition and legal fees came from the city’s tax increment financing fund, of which there is about $15,000 left this fiscal year for repairs and maintenance.

“We don’t imagine the city will be the one that does all of [the repairs and maintenance],” Mayor Brian Sager said. “That might be the third party that comes in and responds to [requests for proposals].”

The city stopped short of saying the building is deteriorating, but a provision in their donation agreement allowed for the city to back out without any liability. At the time, the city said they were prompted by concerns of physical damage from precipitation and lack of maintenance. However, that clause was written before city officials were allowed to do physical inspections of the property. Access was just granted last week.

The Old Courthouse was tied up in litigation with a tenant and had a number of liens against it, holding up the donation for months.

If the city didn’t accept the donation, it was possible the building would have fallen into foreclosure.

Former owners and current tenants Cliff and Beverly Ganschow operate the Old Courthouse Arts Center. The Ganschows bought the Old Courthouse in 1972.

The Ganschows recently sent a memo to Sager expressing interest in repurchasing the building “on a fair basis at the appropriate time.”

Cliff Ganschow declined to comment further when contacted by the Northwest Herald.

The city also refused to weigh in on the Ganschows’ memo, saying only that the city eventually will request qualifications and proposals from any party interested in taking ownership of the building.

The Ganshchows made no attempt to bid on the building at a sheriff’s auction.

In addition to the art gallery, the building is occupied by La Petite Creperie and Bistro. The tenants will negotiate new leases with the city going forward; that also could include the arts center, but nothing has been determined, Morefield said.

“Right now we don’t have any revenue coming in, that’s why it’s incumbent to work with the city attorney’s office to generate lease [agreements] to generate revenue,” Sager said. “Because at the same time, we’re going to have heating bills, water bills, electric bills.”

The city attorney also is working to abate property taxes owed this year and obtain tax-exempt status on the property.

The building at 101 N. Johnson St. was built in 1857. The sheriff’s house and jail building were added 30 years later.

City officials have maintained an interest in protecting the architectural and historic integrity of the building, as well as ensuring its economically viability.

“It’s a multiple-use downtown, and what ultimately ends up going in the courthouse will, in large part, be up to what the market says, or what the needs are downtown,” Morefield said.

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