Old Will County Courthouse survives for another look

County board votes 10-9 to keep alive resolution for study on redevelopment

will county courthouse, government

Preservationists who want to keep the old Will County Courthouse standing won a tentative victory on Thursday.

The cause for keeping the building came out ahead by one vote when the Will County Board kept alive a proposal to study the benefits of redevelopment.

The vote was a far cry from a commitment to keeping the building. But it did show a willingness to reconsider a unanimous vote in 2019 to have it demolished.

“I’m not saying anyone made a poor decision before, but serendipitously things have changed,” said county board Member Dan Butler, R-Frankfort, one of the leading advocates for keeping the courthouse. “Now we have millions of dollars for construction costs.”

The new Will County Courthouse sits in the background of the old Will County Courthouse on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Joliet.

Advocates contend the county could get access to tax credits to offset the cost of redevelopment, although a county attorney said she was not so sure that was the case.

Nothing about the courthouse preservation cause was certain after the board in a 10-9 vote sent a resolution to review the benefits of redevelopment to its Executive Committee.

Nick Macris, co-chair of the Courthouse Preservation Partnership, was asked if the vote was a victory for the cause and said, “I have no idea.”

But Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, said the outcome was a win considering the alternative.

Bonnie McDonald, CEO Landmarks Illinois, speaks at a special meeting on the future of the old Will County Courthouse at the Will County board on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Joliet.

“Today, this conversation could have ended, and it didn’t,” McDonald said.

A no-vote would have made it unlikely the county would give any further consideration to keeping the building. Instead, McDonald said, 10 county board members showed they are willing to hear more about the potential benefits of redevelopment.

The future of the old courthouse remains precarious, however.

The county already has spent more than $200,000 on engineering expenses to prepare for demolition. The 2023 budget includes $2.5 million to be spent on demolition.

The Thursday vote sends the resolution to a committee headed by board chair Judy Ogalla, R-Crete, who supports demolition and voted no on the motion to send the proposed study to her committee.

The efforts to save the courthouse building have had a desperate cliffhanger feel with advocates fending off the wrecking ball with what means they can.

The Joliet Historic Preservation Commission since May has continued hearings on landmark status for the building, a process that prevents the city from issuing a demolition permit but is only good until October.

Will County board member Daniel Butler speaks at a special meeting on the future of the old Will County Courthouse at the Will County board on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Joliet.

Commission members suspect the Joliet City Council, which has final say, would not support landmark status.

Mayor Terry D’Arcy already has joined Will County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant to support the idea of a future city-county complex on the site that would include a new Joliet city hall and a new county office building. But there have been no approvals for such a project from Joliet or Will County.

Even the vote Thursday came only after seven county board members utilized a board rule allowing a special meeting when requested by a board minority. The only item on the agenda fo the special meeting was the courthouse redevelopment study.

Some board members expressed concern that the study will keep in place a building that is costing the county more than $8,000 a month to maintain while it goes unused.

“How long are we willing to let that be the case?” asked Member Frankie Pretzel, R-New Lenox, as he questioned how long a review of redevelopment options may take. “Is there any way to put an end date on it or speed it up a little?”

Butler said he was willing to put a three-month limit on the study for redevelopment.