Location of courthouse can influence downtown - Letters to the editor: A-T

October 31, 2014

By John Bing - Guest Columnist The Advertiser-Tribune

Should we care about the open space where the old courthouse stood? It is, after all, just a piece of ground, vacant for now. Isn't it just another empty field? Why should it make a difference what we do with the space?

Some would say, "If building onto the present annex is the most cost-effective way to gain new space for justice services, then do it." As long, of course, as we really need addition resources. But that's another question, and while important, I simply don't have enough information at this point to make a call.

My concern is where, if we decide it is necessary, it should be built or what buildings could be remodeled to serve the need. And I don't think this is merely a question of cost and convenience.

What space, building or place is best for court services themselves is, of course, a fact to consider, as well as how long any new building or reconstruction will last. But I believe there is a more important issue. Something we can only understand if we look at the problem in a different and larger way.

I believe we must first ask this: What solution is going to be best for Tiffin and Seneca County - best for all of us who live in Seneca County and Tiffin, best for our property values, best for our quality of life, best for our economic growth and jobs.

The courthouse green is not just "any" space. It lies at the center of the downtown and the downtown is a very significant, I would say a "key," part of the future of the whole community. Recently, we have seen very positive signs of growth and renewal: new commercial businesses, many locally owned and managed, an expansion of manufacturing, the continuing growth of the universities.

Tiffin is on the move. Real change is happening. Positive change. Now the problem is, can we continue this momentum, can we pick up the pace and bring the kind of development to the community that will really make this a more and more desirable place to live and work?

All the research I've seen says the quality of life in the downtown is "key" to such further growth. The wrong use and development of a downtown can slow or even halt growth. The right development of a downtown can supercharge growth, and it would be the right kind of change.

Here's why. How people value any part of the community depends upon what they see there, what they do there, what people are saying about it. Is it an upbeat place of quality living? Is it where people want to be? Is it where people will come to live and work and shop and enjoy their lives? Or is it a just a fenced-off holding tank for the homeless and the unemployed and the poor?

Perception is key. Perception matters. It is easy for a downtown area to slip into a negative. And when that happens, it affects not just how people think about the downtown. It affects the way people see the whole community. How could it be otherwise? The downtown symbolizes the community, it is the most visible part of the community.

For first impressions, it is Tiffin. And with longer acquaintance it is an inspiration for, as well as an engine of, development. Activity of the right kind in the downtown area - people from all over the community enjoying a farmer's market or ice skating, participating in a religious service, attending an art show or a trade show - celebrates who we are and who we are destined to become.

How space is used defines a place. It is the beginning of positive change; a precondition of investment and growth. It is the key to success. Tiffin's downtown should be the center of community life, where old apartments are renovated and new townhouses constructed, the location of new shops and restaurants. A place where people meet and get to know each other, where information is shared and trust is developed. A place for people to make plans and work together: a gallery walk, a history tour, a holiday event, a patriotic celebration.

It does matter whether we have a vital center in our community. It matters because whether or we continue to grow and prosper is our future.

John Bing is a professor of political science and anthropology at Heidelberg University