CASSOPOLIS — There’s no timetable or dollar amount given for the project, but Cass County commissioners have committed to finding a way to restore the historic 1897 Cass County Courthouse and once again use it for county offices.
The courthouse building in downtown Cassopolis has been vacant for 15 years, ever since the new Law & Courts Building on M-62 was built. Commissioners and residents have debated what to do with the building since then, with suggestions including selling it to a private developer.
On Thursday commissioners heard from the historic courthouse committee, which was formed at the start of the year after the county board’s failure last fall to decide on a way forward. Commissioner Skip Dyes said the committee met seven times from February through April and then asked the county administration to do a study.
Dyes said his committee concluded that the courthouse building should be used once again to house county offices. He noted that they didn’t see proposals to sell it to a commercial developer or turning it over the Economic Development Corporation to rehab and repurpose it as viable.
County Administrator Jeff Carmen agreed, saying that he and others in county administration saw the reuse for county offices option as the only viable option to pursue after studying the situation and consulting with others. “It’s a beautiful building. … We’re excited about this and we know we can do this,” he said.
Carmen showed commissioners a video of what a restored courthouse building could look like. The video showed a more open layout of the building with a welcome center and county offices scattered over three floors. He noted that the proposal doesn’t address what to do with the annex building, where offices are currently.
He identified a number of “puzzle” pieces that don’t necessarily fit together, such as how much it will cost to do, how it will be funded and what the timetable is to finish it. He did estimate that it could cost between $4.5 million and $6.3 million to restore the building, and that funding could come from bond issues, a millage, grants or loans.
Commissioners approved Carmen’s recommendation that authorizes him to work with a real estate/finance attorney and others such as contractors, builders, historic tax credit experts, architects, engineers and developers and come back with a more specific proposal. No dollar amount was given as to how much that will cost.
Commissioners appeared to like what they saw, as did Friends of the Historic Courthouse member Cathy LaPointe. LaPointe applauded them for agreeing to keep the building intact and said having public space within the building would only enhance it.
County Board Chairman Robert Benjamin said he doesn’t see Carmen’s proposal as precluding having public space including rooms the community can use and even some small shops. Carmen agreed, and said he envisions the restored courthouse as having public space for everything from meeting rooms to shops to gallery space.