Entrance to the Tipton County Jail KT photo | Tim Bath
Entrance to the Tipton County Jail KT photo | Tim Bath
TIPTON - To preserve or demolish? That's the question facing the Tipton County Jail.

Since its construction in 1894, the building at 121 W. Madison St. has served as the county's jail and sheriff's office. 

The building is only one of two structures in the entire county that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique architecture and storied past. The other building is the courthouse.

Today, the jail is the last of its kind that's still being used in the entire state.

But that's about to change.

Construction on a new $16-million jail and sheriff's department started at the end of last year on the west end of town. Tipton County Commissioner Jim Mullins said they've desperately needed the new facility for more than a decade.

For years, the current jail has failed inspections by the Indiana Department of Correction. Mullins said, with just 27 beds, its woefully too small to house the 40 inmates who on average occupy the jail. Plus, the building is in need of repairs. A leaky roof has caused water damage throughout parts of the structure.

"We are considered one of the worst-condition jails in the state," Mullins said.

The new jail is projected to be finished by the end of the year. Mullins said the facility will have room for up to 90 inmates and will be the first jail in the state to have four beds dedicated to inmates with mental health issues. The county hopes to move the sheriff's department and inmates into the facility by early 2020.

And then the question must be answered: What will the county do with the old jail?

That's a question the Tipton County Historical Society has been preparing for since 2014, when a jail committee was awarded a grant to conduct a feasibility study on future uses of the facility.

The study found the building was in relatively good shape considering its age, and restoration could be done. But that restoration would come with a hefty price tag.

The study projected a full renovation could cost up to $1.5 million, including masonry work, new windows and doors, and fixing the roof and drainage problems.

The cost to simply demolish the structure rang up to $500,000. But that's an option the historical society is bent on preventing.

Jill Curnutt-Howerton, executive director of the Tipton County Historical Society, said she's watched the city's past slowly slip away over the last few decades, as historic buildings have fallen into disrepair and eventually been demolished.

That includes an entire block of downtown buildings on Court Street, which is now a parking lot. Last year, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was torn down after standing for 126 years. The city's old Carnegie Library was demolished in the 1980s. Other old buildings have become dilapidated and are now beyond repair.

"It's been building after building after building," Curnutt-Howerton said. "We don't have many historic places left. They've all been turned into parking lots. We don't need anymore parking lots. We need historic buildings to remain, because once it's gone, it's gone forever."

The historical society and others are now working to convince county commissioners, who are in charge of the old jail, to save one of the last vestiges of the town's history.

And with the right kind of development, preserving the jail is totally possible, said Sam Burgess, a community preservation specialist with Indiana Landmarks, the nonprofit group that awarded the grant for the feasibility study.

Burgess spoke to city and county officials Wednesday to offer options on how to preserve the old jail and avoid demolition.

The best thing going for the building, he said, is the fact it's listed on the National Register. That designation doesn't prevent the structure from being torn down, but it does unlock a slew of financial incentives that would offset the up-to $1.5 million to renovate it.

The biggest perk is the federal rehabilitation incentive tax credit, which offers a 20-percent, dollar-for-dollar, income tax credit on redevelopment costs. It's a credit that's only available for buildings on the National Register, and could save a developer $300,000 on rehabbing the jail.

Another major incentive comes from a low-income tax credit, which knocks 20 percent off an investment that creates affordable housing. Burgess said a developer could tap into that credit if the jail were turned into senior housing, which is lacking in Tipton. 

He said there are good examples around the state of developers who take advantage of both tax credits to get 40 percent back on projects. For the Tipton jail, that could save up to $600,000.

"That's enormous," Burgess said. "Not only does preserving a building of this nature make sense from a moral standpoint of preserving your community's history and taking responsibility for an important historic resource. It also makes smart economic sense."

Jane Harper, a former county commissioner whose last term ended in 2012, agreed. She said even if it costs more than a million dollars to restore the jail, it's worth the investment to stop the demolition of one of the few historic buildings left in town.

"I'm disappointed in our county, because we don't seem to see the value in embracing our heritage," she said. "... People who have been to other countries and localities see how other people wrap their arms around 500-year-old buildings. We're talking about a place that's just over 100 years old. I think every effort needs to be made to preserve it."

But Commissioner Mullins said the price tag to renovate the structure has to be seriously considered. It's been five years since the last feasibility study was done at the jail. He said it's likely renovation costs have climbed to close to $2 million in that time as the building's current issues only get worse.

Mullins said he's in favor of preserving the jail, but not if the cost to restore it is unreasonable. 

"That's my preference, but I still have to make a practical decision in terms of economics," he said. "The biggest issue is simply cost. How much money is going to be available? What's maintenance going to cost? Can we find a private investor for the project? We've got all this to go through." 

But the clock is ticking. Once the new jail opens next year, a decision will have to be made on what to do with the facility.

Mullins said he plans to put out a community survey to gauge public opinion on what do. But no matter what the commissioners decide, someone will be unhappy.

"I know people say they hear a lot of people want to preserve it," he said. "But I'm hearing both sides. No matter what we do, we're going to have a percent of the population that says we're stupid and doing the wrong thing."

Former commissioner Harper said she thinks demolishing the jail would be a big mistake. And once people have a chance to go inside for tours after the new facility opens, the public will agree, she said.

"As a community, we just have to accept that these are assets," Harper said. "... It's expensive, but sometimes you have to weigh the expense versus what you're getting for it. It is costly, I know. But it's our heritage. Can you put a price tag on that?"

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