Saturday, November 27, 1999

Money search to decide mill's fate

Preservationists, county at odds

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        VEVAY, Ind. — In a showdown between preservationists and Switzerland County officials over a historic mill, both sides are looking for a magic bullet: cash.

        Friends of the Vevay Roller Mill want to turn the shuttered, decaying 19th-century flour mill into an educational museum. They say it would attract tourists and be a valuable resource for local schools.

        County commissioners would rather tear it down, using the land to build extensions onto the outdated jail and administration buildings next door.

        But a year before the first multimillion-dollar tax payments are likely to arrive from the Belterra Resort and Casino being built just outside of town, neither group has the money to achieve its goals.

        Both agree the one to find funding first will probably win.

        “I think it's at a standstill as far as (we) commissioners are concerned,” said Charles Haskell. “We've already determined that we're not going to spend any county money on (restoration). And if the historical society doesn't make any progress ... then the time could come when we would tear it down.

        “Switzerland County is a very poor county. And things like building a new jail, if the money came along, we'd probably do that.”

        With help from the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, which just put the mill on its statewide “Ten Most Endangered” historic structures list, Friends is trying to get grants or donations to complete an estimated $200,000 renovation.

        But President Rhonda Pennington, a Switzerland County Elementary School teacher, said her group cannot apply for private and some public grants without permission from the owner — Switzerland County.

        “They've tied our hands. ... We've pointed that out to them several times,” Ms. Pennington said. “But we would really love to work with them.”

        Both projects are possible, according to a feasibility study commissioned by Friends and completed last year. The property is large enough to accommodate a restored mill and a shop or restaurant in its attached defunct feed store, as well as an addition onto the jail or county building.

        And neither side is entirely opposed to the other's plans — although Friends say the downtown historic district is not the best place for a new jail, and county commissioners contend other public projects are of much higher priority.

        Mr. Haskell said that even when riverboat casino revenues begin to arrive, he would rather give the county's 8,000 residents a tax break.

        Commissioner Jim Allison said a first priority should be a new jail, since the existing structure, built in 1853, does not meet state regulations. Prisoners can only be held there for up to 72 hours; beyond that, they must be transported to jails in Carroll County, Ky., or Dearborn County, Ind.

        “The jail is pretty much the way it was back in the time (it was built), other than that we do have electric and an indoor privy — we don't use chamber pots anymore,” said Sheriff Wayne Browning.

        Switzerland County has paid the other counties about $100,000 so far this year to hold and feed its prisoners. Two deputies spend most of their time transporting them.

        The roller mill, built in 1858, was one of the first steam-powered industrial facilities in the state, and among the first in the Midwest that separated the germ from the wheat to allow for longer storage.

        It still holds much of the original equipment, dating from the late 1880s through the 1950s and representing a variety of manufacturers. It could be reassembled as a teaching tool, Ms. Pennington said.

        “As an educator, I know my students just see it as an old building. But when they start to learn about it, they become very interested. I don't want them to lose that part of their heritage,” she said.


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