Deal in works to sell historic jail, sheriff's residence

PAXTON — Barring any unforeseen issues, Ford County Board members expect to be ready in March to vote on the sale of the historic former sheriff’s residence and jail on the courthouse square.

Board members voted 12-0 Monday night to allow Chairman Rick Bowen to hire “outside legal counsel” to review a proposed contract for the sale. The Paxton Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving Paxton’s past, submitted the proposal in late January to buy the aging complex and the ground it sits on for $10.

The board got its first glance at the proposal during an overview committee last Thursday. During that meeting, the board suggested a few additions and changes to the contract with Royce Baier, the foundation’s president.

On Monday, Baier said he had the foundation’s attorney, Bob Martensen of Paxton, work in the proposed changes, and he said, “I think we covered all but one.”

One change to the contract is that if the foundation ever were to disband or opted to sell the building, the ownership of the building and the land it sits on would be automatically reverted back to the county. The original proposal only required the foundation to give the county the first option to buy back the property if it were to be sold by the foundation.

Another change to the proposal is that the foundation would not be able to change the zoning of the property from its current R-3 (multi-family residential) zoning without approval of the county board.

Baier agreed with board member Tom McQuinn of rural Paxton that the R-3 zoning would allow for the anticipated use of the complex as a museum or office space for the foundation. Meanwhile, McQuinn said a zoning variance would be needed to operate a bed-and-breakfast there — another idea still being explored.

The county board also suggested last week adding a clause to the proposed contract stating that the building’s exterior appearance must comply with all city ordinances at all times.   The board wanted ownership to transfer back to the county automatically if the building’s appearance is not kept up and ordinance violations are issued as a result.

But that issue was not discussed again at Monday’s meeting.

Baier presented an “action plan” for the renovation of the building that, he said, should address the “immediate concerns” of the board regarding the building’s condition.

“Our major concern at this point is to clean up and stabilize the exterior of the complex,” the action plan stated.

The action plan calls for the following work to be done by the end of 2013: brick replacement and tuckpointing as needed on the sheriff’s residence; tuckpointing and cleaning of the stone on the outside of the jail as needed; repair and painting of the complex’s porches; and painting and repairs to wooden trim on the complex, such as windows and soffits.

Baier also said one of the foundation’s priorities will be installing a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, “at least in the sheriff’s residence” portion of the building, before winter.

Other work will be completed as funding is procured and volunteer help is available, Baier said.

“We feel as though completing this scope of work should be a great start for such a worthwhile project,” Baier said in the action plan. “The scope of work for the exterior, of course, can’t be started until we have nicer weather. It is our plan to start immediately.”

Bowen agreed that the action plan addresses the county board’s concerns.

Meanwhile, Bowen said the board continues to negotiate with Baier whether to sell only the building to the foundation, or instead sell both the building and the land it sits on to the foundation.

Baier said he would prefer buying both the land and building.

Bowen said the land issue will be part of what is discussed with the attorney who will be hired to review the contract, Steve Weeks, a partner in the Weeks & Brucker law firm in Gibson City.

After the attorney reviews the contract, Bowen said, the board may hold one more meeting to look at the proposal before voting to approve the final contract in March.
Baier said the foundation will be starting fund-raising immediately for the renovation of the building. Anyone wishing to donate toward the project can send a check to: The Paxton Foundation, 358 W. Pells St., Paxton, IL 60957.

The county board in December had made plans to tear down the 1871 Italianate-style brick sheriff’s residence and attached stone jail — one of the few remaining jails in Illinois built from athens marble — if no viable use for the building could be found.

An exact plan for using the building has not been determined. Baier said ideas for its use would be explored further as the longterm renovation of the building is completed in the next several years.

The complex was made eligible in 2012 for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, based on its historical integrity and significance to the law enforcement history of Ford County.

The building has not been used as a jail since 1993. At the time, it had been Illinois’ oldest-operating jail. It was replaced by a new jail that was built north of the complex.

County board members have stressed that they do not want to tear down the building, given its historical significance, but they also noted that the county has no use of its own for the aging structure, and they are not willing to spend any more of taxpayers’ money to preserve it.

Baier said the foundation would be committed to paying for all of the cost of renovating the complex, adding that the county would not be stuck paying for anything.

Baier pointed to the success of the foundation’s previously completed projects, such as the restoration of the historic water tower and pumphouse in downtown Paxton, which was converted into a county museum. Baier said the foundation raised $80,000 through various fund-raisers in the first few years of starting that project.

The next regularly scheduled county board meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday, March 11, in the basement of the Ford County Correctional Facility.

Location (3):Local, Paxton, Ford County

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