Weddings and other private events at Historic Courthouse in Stillwater produce the cash that keeps the county landmark open to the public.
That won’t change — but who manages those events might.
Soon, Washington County park officials will request proposals from private vendors to explore shifting responsibility for the burgeoning wedding business away from county employees.
The point of that, said parks program coordinator Peter Mott, is to put skilled wedding organizers in charge of a competitive business operation and let park staff concentrate on history and public programming.
“A big part of what we do there is help people put on special events that are private events,” Mott said. “People make a living doing this work. It’s the most important day in somebody’s life.”
Last year, 25,000 people attended events at Historic Courthouse — mostly weddings. In summer, the lawns and front steps of the 145-year-old building offer a picturesque setting for photographs, and the courtroom on the second floor is popular for receptions and dances.
But people also visit Historic Courthouse for tours and county programs such as the Victorian Tea and to research history.
Mott said the county has no intention of transferring the crown jewel of Washington County history to private management.
“We understand what this facility means to people in the community,” he said.
About a year ago, the County Board asked the parks staff to review whether private contractors should manage the wedding business, much as they perform many other functions of county work.
“What they want us to look at is whether or not there might be someone in the community that is better suited to handle the wedding services that are performed,” Mott said.
No decisions have been made, said Don Theisen, the county’s public works director.
“We’ve got to find things out first before we charge ahead,” he said. Possibly having a private vendor handle the weddings portion of Historic Courthouse “frees up our park staff to do programs,” he said.
Theisen said the coordinator position held by Carolyn Phelps, who retired in September, will be filled.
“We’re going to have somebody in parks responsible for the programming down there,” he said.
David Erickson of Newport, who chairs the citizen advisory committee for Historic Courthouse, said its members met last week with Mott and felt satisfied that nothing would be done to hurt the building or its mission.
“It’s limited only to the weddings and courthouse events, not touching the building management. The committee agreed that it sounded like an opportunity where it could free up the parks resources,” Erickson said. “It’s a business that the courthouse needs, but the other option would be to hire a full-time weddings coordinator for the parks staff, which doesn’t make sense for a government entity.”
Private events introduce many people to the building and its history who otherwise wouldn’t have seen it, he said.
The committee will remind any private vendors that the courthouse “still belongs to the county and ultimately the taxpayers of the county,” Erickson said.
An unsigned e-mail that circulated in Stillwater recently alleged that the county intended to fire employees and turn Historic Courthouse into a “shell” to make money. It also alleged that Dick Anderson, who owns Stillwater’s riverboats, had an inside track on the wedding business.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Mott, who had seen the e-mail. “We’ve talked to several people who do this work, probably a dozen. I’ve done quite a bit of research on this issue.”
Dodged demolition in ’60s
The old courthouse — a commanding presence on Stillwater’s skyline — came close to demolition in the 1960s when the county considered building a new government complex on the site. Instead, the county built about a mile away and Historic Courthouse continues to overlook downtown Stillwater from the hilltop at Pine and Third streets.
In 1971, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest standing courthouse in Minnesota.
Gary Kriesel, the county commissioner who represents the Stillwater area, said Historic Courthouse is “a major part of our heritage” and a Minnesota icon. He favors finding a way to bring even more historical programming and public visitation to the courthouse.
“The demise of the courthouse has been greatly exaggerated,” he said. “We recognize the importance of that historic building. We’re not going to let any harm come to Historic Courthouse.”