Historic Courthouse restoration on budget and on schedule

Work continues on the $4.6 million project to make critical repairs to the Butler County Historic Courthouse.

Credit: NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

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Work continues on the $4.6 million project to make critical repairs to the Butler County Historic Courthouse.

Credit: NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Hydraulic scaffolding flanking the east side of the Butler County Historic Courthouse was a sight for sore eyes for many officials because it heralded the long awaited $4.6 million restoration project and work is going smoothly.

In January the commissioners approved a $1.65 million — including contingencies — contract with NR Lee Construction for the first phase of the project to replace the roofing systems, namely the slate roof and adjoining gutter systems and the flat roofs and repairs to plumbing and the chimney.

Crews started work in April and Chris Hacker, the county’s asset, procurement and projects director, said the underlay for the new roof is already installed on the eastern half of the building and the slate panels are scheduled to be delivered and installed in mid-July. The project is on budget and on time.

“They have hydraulic scaffolding, it’s on a vertical lift, they only have enough of those units to one half of the building at a time. So we’re not surrounding the entirety of the facility with those lifts at once,” Hacker said. “So we’ll do all the work on the east elevations and they will kind of flip and move all of the stuff to the west elevations.”

The county spent $75,000 of the capital improvement budget last year for an architect to draw up plans to restore the 132-year-old courthouse in downtown Hamilton. The total cost of the project to make critical repairs to the courthouse is $4.6 million and it was to be phased over three years but the first phase and hopefully parts of Phase 2 will be done this year.

Hacker said they are still finalizing bid documents for the second phase so he doesn’t have a date when that project will get underway, but they need to finish the first phase first because they would need access to the same parts of the building. Phase 2 will tackle repairing the stone facade of the building and replacing the steps on the other three sides of the building.

The commissioners authorized spending $91,994 to replace the crumbling steps on the High Street side of the courthouse and the work was completed in September 2016.

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The final phase — each was estimated at $1.5 million — entails replacing the clocktower roof, asphalt shingle roof, and clocktower facade repairs.

Hacker said nothing will change for the “functionality” of the building, the main entrance will remain on the west side of the building, although the entrance on the south side can be opened if necessary, once work flips to the other side.

“This is 100% external repairs so from a functionality standpoint there is really nothing that will inherently change as a result of each of these phases being complete,” Hacker said. “It is more about protecting the structural integrity of the building, as with age there has been water infiltration.”

Skyrocketing inflation and labor and supply shortages have negatively impacted all construction projects, and the original $4.6 million price tag for the entire exterior restoration is from December 2020. Hacker said “absolutely we do expect it will be more expensive than that because of the economy today.”

The commissioners told the Journal-News they are willing to pay more than they originally planned. They didn’t take official action on the entire plan, the phases are approved as the projects are bid.

“We had held off restoration activity for really several years, and so while the cost to do the work may go up, the cost if you don’t do it will also go up,” Commissioner T.C. Rogers said.

A rough estimate from years ago to fully the restore the iconic building inside and out was $10 million and Commissioner Cindy Carpenter has been lobbying her fellow commissioners to tackle the entire building, “whatever it takes, if we take this opportunity do it right it’ll save us in the long run, no cutting corners.”

“What’s happened is we haven’t invested in maintaining the courthouse on the inside or the outside and we’re paying the price for it. So if we stop this update project it will only cost us more in the long run,” Carpenter said. “I think we have to recognize this is Butler County’s iconic building and make the commitment to maintain it and put the budget in annually for repairs and updates so we don’t end up in a place like this in the future where it’s an overwhelming cost.”

Another long awaited project is to completely automate what has been dubbed the county’s “Stone Age” garage at the Government Services Center on Court Street.

Earlier this year the commissioners agreed to pay $200,000 to update the 600-space garage that currently operates as a cash-only, pay-at-the-gate operation. Hacker said they needed to get the entire facility pressure washed and parking spaces restriped first, which is complete.

The software system that operates the garage was already in place so they just need to get the equipment installed after they finished testing it. Hacker said it should be operational sometime this summer.

“The installation of all of the hardware is anticipated to take two weeks,” Hacker said. “Before we say yes go, we just want to make sure all of our testing is coming back as anticipated. We certainly don’t want to put in the equipment and say okay go and not know it’s going to work the way we expect.”

The entrance and exits will look the same except there will not be a garage attendant manning the booth on Court Street anymore. There will be a pay station that takes cash or credit in the first floor lobby of the garage and another inside the GSC by the breezeway that connects the two buildings on the second floor.

There are a number of different parking arrangements at the garage. People can pay $40 a month for a reserved spot, jurors and law enforcement and fire officials from county jurisdictions and some others park for free and then daily parkers who pay a maximum of $6.50. There will be an online pay option for monthly parking.

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