JOLIET – Will County Executive Larry Walsh reaffirmed his commitment to keeping downtown Joliet as the county seat during Wednesday’s Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry luncheon.
“While we understand that in planning for our future there will be many variables and uncertainty, please know that I remain committed to this partnership,” Walsh told a roomful of local business leaders during his chamber luncheon keynote speech. “We have demonstrated this by making strategic investments in downtown Joliet to ensure government efficiency and strengthen our economic future.”
Walsh gave his speech, billed as a “state of the county” address, for the chamber at Harrah’s Casino in downtown Joliet.
While Walsh and several County Board members stand firm behind the belief that a new courthouse should be located downtown, others – especially Republicans – believe the county could save money in construction costs by building elsewhere on a green site.
Although a new courthouse facility is years away, much of the county’s plan for a downtown judicial complex hinged on the $4 million acquisition this summer of First Midwest Bank – which sits west of the current courthouse.
The bank purchase also was key in moving forward the county’s master plan for improving its core downtown facilities, including the construction of a new courthouse, Walsh told the chamber.
“I think we can all agree about the need for a new courthouse. Our current courthouse has outlived its usefulness in terms of capacity, public safety, and efficiency,” Walsh said. “We can no longer deny this fact and must take decisive action.”
Taking over the bank building at Ottawa and Jefferson streets will allow the county to consolidate county departments. Moving forward, the bank building’s second and third floors will temporarily house the Will County Sheriff’s Office, now housed at the Eagle Building on Washington Street and the Court Annex building on Ottawa.
Renovations at the former Social Security Administration building, 158 N. Scott St., are nearing completion, too, Walsh said, allowing the county to move the recorder of deeds and coroner’s offices there in January.
As far as the bank property goes, First Midwest Bank President Jim Roolf said it’s in the county’s interest for the bank to move out sooner rather than later.
“I’m sure Larry would want me to hand over the keys to the first floor soon, too,” Roolf said, who joined county officials at the 50 W. Jefferson St. bank site later Wednesday for a ceremonial transfer of ownership of the bank’s upper floors to the county.
Under the First Midwest Bank purchasing contract, the bank can pay rent to the county and continue operating on the first floor until 2017, or until it finds a new location, Roolf said after Walsh’s speech.
First Midwest Bank is just as committed to the downtown area as Will County is, Roolf said. He said the bank plans to relocate elsewhere in downtown, but a final site has not been decided.
He declined to comment on specific locations Wednesday, but noted the possibility of renovating or expanding First Midwest’s existing facility at Webster and Chicago streets. Building new on a yet-to-be-determined site is also a very real possibility, he said.
Russ Slinkard, chief executive officer and president for the chamber, said he was pleased to hear Walsh affirm his commitment to downtown Joliet.
“[Keeping the courthouse downtown] is key,” Slinkard said. “It really is key. If we’re really going to invigorate downtown, the courthouse needs to be here.”
Having a new courthouse built downtown will be important in drawing more businesses to Joliet, Slinkard said.
Moving the coroner’s administrative office to the former Social Security Administration building frees up space in the Emco Building, 57 N. Ottawa St. The Emco Building, also known as the Court Annex, houses the state’s attorney’s office and could one day serve as space for the public defender’s office.