Higher education in Woodstock Old Courthouse’s future?

A panel of Chicago real estate experts recommend a higher ed institution for historic building

WOODSTOCK – A university or another higher education institution could one day anchor the historical Old Courthouse in Woodstock, if the City Council follows recommendations made recently by a panel of Chicago real estate experts.

The experts from the Urban Land Institute also laid out a path for city officials to redevelop the property situated at the heart of the downtown Square, with steps that include continued building renovations and an ownership transition to a community nonprofit organization.

But it falls to the City Council to act on the experts’ recommendations that come about four years after the city took ownership of the historic al Woodstock building.

“The council needs to take the findings and come to an agreement on the steps that make sense to us and get moving,” council member Maureen Larson said. “We lost a few months in waiting for this process, but I think it was worth it because we’ll leap frog in the end to where we need to be.”

Larson helped bring the Urban Land Institute experts to Woodstock, after the city received a $20,000 grant from McHenry County Community Foundation. The expert panel, made mostly of Chicago architects and economists, toured both the Old Courthouse and conjoined Sheriff’s House during a two-day visit to Woodstock in early March.

The experts also interviewed community leaders, as part of the process to make recommendations on potential uses for a building the city has wanted to redevelop into an all-day traffic generator for the downtown.

The panel’s main recommendations would one day make the Old Courthouse home to a higher education institution – either liberal arts, adult education or a specialty school like one for the culinary arts.

With higher education as the anchor, the Old Courthouse also could include space for a city visitor’s center, reception areas and conference rooms. The panel unveiled its recommendations during a near two-hour public presentation late last week.

A restaurant or bed and breakfast works best for the conjoined Sheriff’s House, the panel said. The popular La Petite Creperie and Bistrot announced plans earlier this month to leave the Sheriff’s House after 10 years and relocate to Barrington.

Ray Hartshorne, who chaired the Urban Land Institute panel, said downtown higher education institutions’ “proven track record” can generate all-day traffic and numerous programs for the community.

“It’s the kind of anchor that would help dovetail with the other traffic generators – not just students, but the restaurant and visitor’s center,” Hartshorne said. “We think those uses make sense with the building.”

One of the city’s initial efforts to find a tenant for the Old Courthouse yielded a proposal last summer from a team of educators interested in converting the building into a private preparatory school.

But city officials likely won’t reconsider the option.

The real estate experts said during the presentation that city officials, through their initial request-for-proposal process, received limited responses that didn’t fit with officials’ ideas for the Old Courthouse.

Before the historic building can house tenants, it needs to be “stabilized” through renovations that make it marketable and livable, the panelists said.

City officials already have started some of the work, renovating the Old Courthouse’s roof and dome earlier this winter.

City Manager Roscoe Stelford said city staff needs to see a detailed list from the institute on suggested renovation before additional work can begin. The panel identified the city’s downtown tax-increment financing district as the source to pay for renovations.

Even with the higher education recommendation, the panelists suggested that the city make the community more involved in the future of the Old Courthouse, detailing a buildup process that may produce different end results for the building.

While renovation work is ongoing, officials should look to form a community advisory committee that can craft a unified vision for the Old Courthouse and create a community buy-in around the vision, the panelists said.

Once the vision is crafted, the city should look to transition ownership to a nonprofit organization that puts an executive director in charge of selling the vision.

A community nonprofit can represent broader interests than the city and has the flexibility to pool various funds for a redevelopment project, the panelists said.

Both Larson and council member Joseph Starzynski said they were open to all of the panel’s recommendations for the Old Courthouse, adding they expect the council to act on some of them later this year.

Stelford said the council’s next step would be to organize a meeting, where members can weigh the panel’s recommendations.

“The panel has given the council good advice and some good things to think about,” Stelford said. “But it ultimately rests on the council to decide what the future of the building is.”

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