ANGOLA — The Steuben County Board of Commissioners are hoping to revisit possible use of the Masonic Lodge on the Public Square as a new judicial facility for the county.
On Thursday, commissioners decided to pursue an appraisal of the building, which is bounded by the former First National Bank of Angola building on the north and The Herald Republican on the south.
The appraisal is contingent on members of the Masonic Lodge also seeking an appraisal independent of what the county will employ. And the proposal to use the lodge also has to meet the approval of the county’s judges.
“If the judges deem they don’t want us to move forward, it’s a moot point,” Commissioner Jim Crowl said.
Magistrate Randy Coffey said he and Circuit Court Judge Allen Wheat and Superior Court Judge William Fee have toured the Masonic Lodge and have seen the potential it holds as a judicial center.
However, Coffey said on Friday he would just like to see the commissioners come up with a concrete plan with numbers and provide impetus for moving forward to get something done.
“It’s still a matter of we’re just talking again. We’re not doing anything,” Coffey said. “If they’re really going to do something, let’s do something. It’s been three plus some years and we’re still just talking.”
Commissioners also want to seek out the services of engineering firms wanting to work on the project.
“We still have folks who want us to move forward,” said Ron Smith, president of the board.
The county has been working on a variety of plans to create a new judicial center, be it a new facility or use of the Masonic Lodge. The current, historic Steuben County Courthouse is cramped for space and fails to meet many requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
No matter what comes of the three-plus years of study for new judicial space, the 1868 Courthouse, which is a replica of Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall, will continue to be used in some capacity by the county.
In August, the Steuben County Council provided the Steuben County Commissioners with a $7.5 million target cost to use when trying to determine how to improve facilities used by the judicial branch of government.
A study conducted by the architectural firm MartinRiley, Fort Wayne, has shown that there are a number of issues with the current facility in terms of accessibility. The study also indicated that the current space is about one-third of what it needs to be.
The MartinRiley study, for a variety of reasons, dismissed use of the Masonic Lodge building. Based on the MartinRiley study, the county is looking at adding to the historic courthouse to triple the existing space, going from 20,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet.
County Council members have said they were comfortable with a range of $7 million to $10 million to spend on a new judicial facility, which could include options of using existing facilities, though they preferred the cost stay in the $7.5 million range.
At one point, the plans included a parking garage north of the Steuben Community Center but has been ruled out as too costly to build.
Councilman Ken Shelton has been a vocal advocate for taking over the Mason Lodge on the southeast quadrant of the Public Square. He also has mentioned the county should acquire the entire block, which would also include the old First National Bank of Angola building, which is reportedly in the process of being sold, and The Herald Republican building, which has been in the newspaper’s hands since it was built in 1882.
Smith has leaned toward new construction, pointing to the many troubles the county experiences with the old Angola High School, which for about 25 years has served as the hub of Steuben County government as the Steuben Community Center.