Will County Board takes new look at future of old courthouse

Preservationists take hope from Thursday meeting

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Six firms have shown interest in redeveloping the old Will County Courthouse, but whether that ever happens depends on a legal snag dating back to 1834.

The Will County Board on Thursday left the future of the building undecided after hearing from preservationists advocating for redevelopment of the courthouse and an assistant state’s attorney advising that the county’s hands are tied.

The building is slated for demolition based on a vote taken by the board in 2019. But some County Board members Thursday showed a willingness to look deeper into the matter.

“I just think we would like to see a thorough plan for how much it’s going to cost to make something useful of this building and how much it’s going to cost to tear it down and make something useful once it’s torn down,” board member Daniel Butler, R-Frankfort, said.

Quinn Adamowski, a Joliet resident and a regional advocacy manager for Landmarks Illinois, urged the board to take its time to decide after naming six firms that responded to the organization’s requests for expressions of interest in redevelopment of the building.

Quinn Adamowski, a joliet resident who also is regional advocacy manager for Landmarks Illinois, tells the Will County Board about developers interested in the old courthouse on Thursday. March 16, 2023.

“They see a lot of promise for that building,” Adamowski said. “They see a lot of promise for downtown Joliet if that building is redeveloped.”

The developers and architects also see the potential for apartments and other private uses on the site that are prohibited, according to the original platting of the city, when it was still called Juliet, in 1834, Will County Assistant State’s Attorney Phil Mock told the board.

The block of land was designated a public ground, and the county has no authority to use the site for other purposes, Mock said.

“The first thing the board needs to realize is that you are only a trustee in the property,” Mock said. “You do not own it.”

The county owns the courthouse building, but not the land on which it stands, Mock said. And future use of the site has to comply with what state law designates a public use.

A public school, government offices and a museum would qualify for public use, he said. Retail, restaurants and hotels likely would face a court challenge even if the county was granted a change in state law to define certain private enterprises as public use.

The county has $2.5 million in the current budget to pay for demolition. However, half of the current County Board members were not on the board when the decision was made to demolish the building, giving hope to preservationists that demolition would be reconsidered.

The Will County Board at a meeting where it heard two presentations on future use of the old courthouse on Thursday, March 16, 2022.

Board Chairman Judy Ogalla, R-Monee, said board committees could revisit the matter, but emphasized that the 2019 decision was not made lightly.

She said the board then considered making the site a central location for county offices and examined the potential use of the old courthouse for that purpose.

“We found it very costly and would not meet the needs that we have,” she said.

Preservationists, meanwhile, are looking for creative ways around the legal obstacle.

Hudson Hollister, co-chairman of the Courthouse Preservation Partnership, suggested the state legislature could be asked to move the designation for public grounds across Ottawa Street to where the new courthouse stands.

Hollister said he was heartened by the board meeting, which included a 19-3 vote to suspend rules and give Adamowski the time he wanted to make his presentation. “I think it shows that the County Board is interested in pursuing all of the options before proceeding with demolition.”

Landmarks Illinois has posted the responses it received on courthouse redevelopment on its website, landmarks.org.