GOSHEN — Elkhart County will have a new, consolidated courthouse constructed on the north edge of Goshen in the future.
The Elkhart County Council on Saturday approved funding the estimated $80 million project by a vote of 5-0. Voting for the issue were Doug Graham, David Hess, Darryl Riegsecker, Randy Yohn and Tom Stump. Councilmembers John Letherman and Tina Wenger abstained.
The vote followed a request by the three Elkhart County commissioners to consolidate the court operations in Goshen and Elkhart into a new complex. The new facility will be constructed on vacant property along Reliance Road. The cost of that property is about $565,000.
“We are able to purchase 33 acres there for a reasonable price,” county commissioner Mike Yoder told the council. “That allows us some additional room for expansion in the future. The other site is about 11 acres and doesn’t allow quite that amount of options for expansion in the future.”
Yoder admitted there are traffic access issues for the Reliance Road site and said county highway engineers believe those can be solved. In addition, he said the Goshen Redevelopment Commissions commitment made Tuesday to provide $1.5 million for infrastructure improvements will greatly help.
“In Goshen we have had the same stance we had when we became part of this, that we would like to see the downtowns renovated,” said Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman before the council vote. “That is still our hope that that is possible … If the renovation piece is not possible, if that is off the table., we definitely want to be supportive of the location at 17 (Reliance Road) and U.S. 33. That is not because it is in the city of Goshen, it’s because it is between the two downtowns.”
Stutsman said he believes the location is the best if consolidation happens because it is near the center of the county’s population.
Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson and others from Elkhart lobbied the council members hard to have their decision set aside for 90 days to allow for an economic impact on downtown Elkhart to be completed. He said the courthouse provides around 200 jobs and is an economic factor in the city.
He added that he and Stutsman were not brought into the consolidation discussion by the commissioners and council until August and have not had time to have a study conducted.
Council president John Letherman said, “Certainly there has been knowledge of this since January,” in reference to media reports about the possible relocation.
“The thought though that we have had enough time in order to at least want one site, and be able to come up with an option, is where we fought the process. We have not had that time,” Roberson said. “And when we have asked, we just got a copy of the entire survey in order for you guys to quantify what your needs were, just about two or three weeks ago. We never really knew any of those things. And when we tried to work with the consulting company, they told us multiple times reasons why a downtown location could not work, but they did not satisfy any of those in resolution format. No, it was just ‘we had to have security.’”
The mayor said county officials claimed they had looked at downtown locations.
“You didn’t do that with Elkhart. Nobody asked if the Elkhart site could be rebuilt or remodeled. Or even if you were building a consolidated building. We have multiple sites downtown that would work,” Roberson said.
Yoder answered questions brought up by the public and Roberson. He said the current 200 or so jobs at the Elkhart Courthouse will remain, but will move to the new facility.
He said the current Elkhart courthouse site will be torn down and it may be possible for the county to donate the property to the city of Elkhart for redevelopment. He said the city has offered $24 million to $30 million in economic incentives to the county to redevelop the courthouse and that money could be used to attract a private developer.
Yoder also poked at the idea that courthouses are vital to economic vitality for downtowns.
As to the issue of an economic impact statement for Elkhart, Yoder said, “I have tried to get my mind around why that would even be necessary. I think if the city actually goes to their current strategic plan … and talk to their consultants there I think their consultants would agree that this is really not an economic development focus for the downtown. In fact, some of the larger cities wish their courthouses were not in the downtown because they take up vital economic space that could be used for the private sector and generate things more vital to economic activity downtown. If your downtown area’s economic vitality vibrancy plan is based on criminal justice activities, I think you need a new plan.”
In refusing to vote, Letherman said he was reminded that he was “violently opposed” to relocating the courts years ago and decided to stick with that.
Wenger said, “I am not ready to vote. I am undecided,” because she believes more discussion with the public needed to occur.