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ROCK ISLAND — Support for saving the historic Rock Island County Courthouse is growing, with more voices joining the chorus of residents opposed to its demolition

More than 100 people squeezed into the chambers of the county office building Tuesday night to address county board members, many of them there to speak on behalf of the courthouse, built between 1895 and 1897.

Public comments from courthouse supporters lasted nearly 30 minutes as nine residents, limited to three minutes each, asked board members to reconsider demolition and instead sell the building to a private developer. Loud applause followed each of the nine speakers.

"The growing number opposed to the courthouse demolition come from all walks of life, all joined together for a common cause: to preserve our historic courthouse," Rock Island resident John Ruckauf said. "Not read about it in some boring history book and most certainly not memorialize it, but to see it in its physical and natural state."

Ruckauf was referring to a memorial display unveiled inside the new nearby Justice Center Annex this week that is dedicated to the historic courthouse, including blueprints of the floor plan and the history of the old courthouse. 

Ruckauf said he disagreed with recent comments by board member Kai Swanson, who said, "The former courthouse was shoddily built," and "No actual offer has been made to purchase and repair the building."

"Even with the most recent water damage caused by holes in the roof due to the asbestos abatement, (the courthouse) stands with great bones, built of limestone bricks similar in composition to those used to build the great pyramids of Giza, which still stand today after more than 4,500 years of wear and tear," Ruckauf said. 

Ruckauf said the county could sell the courthouse for a $1 and save the county and Public Building Commission more than $1 million earmarked for the cost of demolition and installation of green space and security bollards. 

He said the county also would benefit from the creation of jobs and thousands of dollars in property taxes the building would generate annually if it was added to the tax rolls. 

Ruckauf then turned to the gallery and said, "To everyone here, to the public, I say to you, 'Should we sell the courthouse?'"

The room full of people overwhelmingly answered, "Yes, sell the courthouse."

"The public has spoken; the ball is in your court," Ruckauf said. 

Rock Island resident Joshua Owens said county officials intentionally did not cover holes cut into the courthouse roof to allow for asbestos abatement. 

"Anyone with any amount of intelligence knows why — in order to destroy the courthouse more," Owens said. "Why is the courthouse roof not covered up? Why? I'm asking the board a question."

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"This is not a question-and-answer session," county board chair Richard Brunk said, as some in the gallery booed him. 

George Barajas, a Rock Island resident and business owner, said he was there to represent the "thousands of hardworking people" like him who also support preserving the courthouse.

"They cannot be here tonight because they are working in the restaurants that prepare and serve your dinners," Barajas said. "They are helping their children with homework, or because they don't understand how the county government works. Even though thousands of my colleagues cannot be here, they support the historic courthouse.

"We value the history in our community," Barajas said. "We value the beauty of historic buildings and landmarks in our community."

Joseph Lemon Jr., the owner of two historic properties, the Abbey Addiction Treatment Center in Bettendorf and Abbey Station in Rock Island, offered to buy the courthouse on the spot. 

"I have my checkbook; I can buy the courthouse right now, and we can record the deed before the end of the meeting," Lemon said. "I will even give you credit for asbestos removal."

Lemon reminded board members of other interested developers, including Restoration St. Louis and Alexander Company.

Rock Island resident Tom Sparkman asked Brunk if he had informed board members about a settlement offer from Landmarks Illinois to end its lawsuit against the county and Public Building Commission. 

Landmarks Illinois sent a proposed settlement agreement April 21 to attorneys for the defendants to end its lawsuit against the county and PBC if the county agreed to market the courthouse to developers over a 90-day period. 

"I have copies; it seems very reasonable," Sparkman said of the settlement offer. "How much of the taxpayers' money — how much of my money — do you want to spend for the right to demolish a building that we, the public, want to keep?"

Jim Uribe was the lone voice of dissent during public comments. Uribe commended board members for their decision to raze the courthouse, saying the county cannot afford to pay for its renovation or upkeep. 

After the meeting, Rock Island resident Vince Thomas said Brunk "needs to be censured by the county board for withholding information" about the settlement offer from Landmarks Illinois.

"Why didn't he let on to anybody that a compromise offer had been made?" Thomas asked.

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