By Conrad Dudderar
EL RENO – A nonprofit group’s effort to save the old Canadian County Jail passed a major hurdle Monday morning when Canadian County Commissioners approved a new lease for the historic site.
Preservation El Reno previously presented a detailed proposal to make repairs and upgrades to the old jail building, 300 N Evans. The non-profit organization announced plans to raise funds to reopen the historic building in fall 2025 as a museum and education center.
Canadian County owns the property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Commissioners had considered demolishing the 116-year-old building instead of spending significant county funds on a restoration/stabilization project ($448,292) or to install a new roof ($251,440). They had discussed creating a tribute plaza at the site using some material from the old jail.
Preservation El Reno members and Canadian County Commissioners agreed on the lease proposal.
The lease was signed after commissioners’ unanimous approval at their weekly meeting Oct. 16.
“I drafted a lease that eventually will return to a 99-year lease,” Assistant District Attorney Tommy Humphries told commissioners. “But the first couple of years have some conditions, so they’re one-year leases with a promise to continue.”
In the first year, Preservation El Reno must show their financial ability to replace the building’s roof – either by having enough funds or having a contractor in place to install a new roof.
In the second year, the roof must be replaced.
This lease has no termination clauses “as long as Preservation El Reno stays in existence,” Humphries explained.
Preservation El Reno, represented by El Reno City Council Member Amy Neathery, is ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
“You sign this over, and you don’t have to spend another dime,” Neathery told county commissioners before they voted to approve the lease. “You can sit back and watch us work.
“We know it’s a lot of work. But it’s important. We have a lot of support. And we’re ready.”
That energy has been lacking in previous decades, Canadian County Commission Chairman Dave Anderson noted.
“I do recognize there was a challenge when the county was using the building and (Preservation El Reno) didn’t have access to the interior,” Anderson said.
An El Reno attorney, Neathery said the new roof is coming.
“As long as those are the only two conditions on why it would not be a 99-year lease, then all of our other questions and concerns have been addressed,” she said.
The non-profit Preservation El Reno is eligible for grant funding from various foundations and organizations for this historic building.
“We know there are grants out there,” Neathery said. “The fact that it’s on the National Registry immediately qualifies it for grants.
“How I see this playing out is (obtaining) private donations on the roof. I would hope private donations for the interior remediation necessary to get the air quality safe. And then grant funding for everything else. We could have private donations for everything. … not worried about the money side of this.”
Chairman Anderson did not want to sell the property.
“This lease is a long-term commitment that Preservation El Reno can have confidence in when they make those investments,” he said.
Under the new lease, Anderson said the group has “full access” to the building – both outside and inside. Public parking is available nearby.
Under a timeline presented to Canadian County Commissioners, Preservation El Reno’s first step will be to obtain liability insurance on the building.
The organization also will launch an extensive crowd sourcing campaign and meet with El Reno city leaders to discuss their plan.
The goal is to replace the old jail’s dilapidated roof before winter weather causes further damage – as fund-raising and grant-writing efforts get underway.
A structural engineer will evaluate the building’s safety and contractors will be hired to repair interior and exterior damage and make other upgrades.
While construction is underway, artifacts would be acquired before displays are assembled for the museum.
After obtaining an occupancy permit from the City of El Reno, Preservation El Reno would then host a grand reopening event.
The organization wants to promote the museum and education center as a stop along Route 66, which celebrates its centennial in 2026.
They also plan to market the museum’s historical and architectural significance; and promote to colleges.
Preservation El Reno envisions the new museum with exhibits featuring old jail history and artifacts, renowned architect Solomon Layton’s work and impact on Oklahoma, and Canadian County Courthouse history.
They see the education center as a learning space for those studying architecture, Oklahoma history and criminal justice.
It also would be a tourist stop along Route 66, ready in time for the centennial.
Chairman Anderson said he was comfortable with terms of the newly negotiated agreement with Preservation El Reno – and the “plan for the future.”
“I think Preservation El Reno’s got some real work to do,” the four-term District 2 commissioner added. “I hope that you are successful in raising money.
“A 501(c)(3) engaging contractors and hiring volunteers is an advantage that we didn’t have.”
The old Canadian County Jail was constructed in 1907 and used as the Canadian County Jail for 78 years.
The building was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in November 1985. It was placed on Preservation Oklahoma’s endangered list in 2021.
Anderson commended the efforts of Preservation El Reno’s new leadership, citing their “passion to save” the old jail.