By Conrad Dudderar
EL RENO – Citing the high cost and better use of taxpayer money, Canadian County Commissioners agreed Aug. 7 not to allocate funds to refurbish the historic county jail.
After reviewing two bid proposals from roofing contractors, construction manager Erick Westfahl said a proposed restoration/stabilization project – as recommended by an engineer – would cost $448,292.
The preliminary estimate was $550,000 to replace the roof, shore up the structure, restore the exterior, along with sheathing, masonry repairs and sanitation clean-up.
“We believed that the numbers would come down, but they’ve come down more than we even anticipated – understanding it’s a significant sum and investment for the building,” Westfahl told commissioners at their Monday morning meeting.
“It’s been our hope to preserve the building, to save the building.”
But even if these costly renovations were completed, the building still could not be opened for public use.
Both the initial estimate and final bid prices included a 10% contingency.
Commissioners then were presented a less-costly “minimalist” option to help preserve the building – demolishing the existing roof and installing a new roof for $251,440.
That would not have included the structural shoring, replacing windows, sanitation clean-up, and related costs – or any contingency.
All three county commissioners voted against spending funds, rejecting the options that Westfahl presented.
They instead expressed a desire to salvage existing building materials and move ahead with plans to develop a tribute plaza and/or public courtyard on the site.
“To what end do we spend a quarter of a million dollars to put a roof on it?” Canadian County Commission Chairman Dave Anderson said. “I personally don’t feel like the people of this county would appreciate a half-a-million-dollar investment into the old jail.
“I think they’re a lot like me. They recognize the historic value of it. But responsibility with public dollars is something we’re tasked with. I knew this would be a hard decision eventually because it is a great expense.”
District 1 County Commissioner Tom Manske agreed.
“In this day and age, getting funds is hard for anything,” the first-year commissioner said. “I have to be responsible to my constituents as well.
“I just don’t understand (spending) $251,000 to put a roof on it and it not be usable. Even if we put the roof on it, you can’t go in there.”
Constructed more than 100 years ago, this county-owned building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The old jail is at the corner of Rogers and Evans next to the renovated stables (or “carriage house”) near the Canadian County Courthouse and Administration Offices.
The long-vacant building has sorely needed a new roof and windows for years. Commissioners fear the existing roof will collapse.
“We all have recognized over the last several years the historic jail roof is deteriorating rapidly,” Chairman Anderson said.
The 501(c)3 non-profit Preservation El Reno previously leased the jail building from Canadian County – but did not have the funds to make the needed roof upgrades.
So, Canadian County Commissioners in March 2022 agreed to accept the lease back.
“It was my intent to start the process of replacing the roof,” Anderson said. “I always knew it would be an extensive project. I felt like the historic value of the building was important. And I still do.
“When we did the release of that lease, there was language that showed out intent to fix the roof. It was never my intent to fix it ‘at all costs’.”
Last fall, a structural engineer was contracted to assess the building’s condition and Westfahl’s company was hired to oversee the process for the potential restoration project.
“We received bids for the work the engineer suggested that we do to preserve the building,” said Anderson, the District 2 county commissioner.
Betty Johnston, president of Preservation El Reno, asked commissioners not to tear down the old county jail.
She emphasized this historic jail with its metal cells is unique and needs to be preserved – but not moved – from its current site.
Johnston suggested county commissioners transfer the lease back so her organization could raise funds for the restoration project. She believes there are “private monies out there” to fund a new roof and other upgrades.
Johnston asked commissioners to provide $150,000 in seed money, saying “we can get the rest of it raised” through private donations. She asked for at least nine months to conduct a fund-raising campaign.
“I don’t think it’s going to come down in nine months,” Johnston said.
Commissioner Manske quickly replied, “If we get a good snow, it might.”
The District 1 commissioner acknowledged Johnston’s desire to “save” the historic county jail building.
“We’ve had other citizens here saying that is not proper use of county funds to spend that much money and it still not be usable,” Manske pointed out.
“We had (El Reno civic leader) Curtis Blanc here three of four weeks ago and he was the one who suggested the idea of a memorial, which I think is a great idea.”
WON’T BE FORGOTTEN
District 3 Commissioner Tracey Rider recognizes the challenge of deciding what to do with something that’s nearing the end of its life.
“What do we do to preserve and bring beauty from ashes?” the first-year commissioner said. “Whatever direction this goes, it’s not going to be a forgotten piece of history.
“It’s not our money, it’s the taxpayers’ money. We’ve got to be really respectful to that.”
Chairman Anderson believes part of the historic building’s value can be captured by salvaging some of its components and constructing a monument there.
He suggested using the two front columns and a decorative mantelpiece for an entrance to a “public courtyard” that is incorporated into a new Canadian County courthouse campus.
Commissioners will have to invest county funds to design a tribute monument and salvage the old jail building’s components, Anderson pointed out.
“That is the most responsible way to preserve the historical value of that building, faced with the numbers we’re looking at to make it a usable space,” he said.