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Ice Rink? Dog Park? Johnson County Deciding What Will Replace Olathe's Old Courthouse

Kyle Palmer
KCUR 89.3
The Johnson County Courthouse will be torn down after the new one opens, and the county is taking ideas on what to put in its place.

For Willie Vader, the Johnson County Courthouse can't be demolished soon enough. 

"That is the single biggest thing that could help downtown Olathe, what goes in there after that building comes down," Vader said. 

He owns Vader's Bar and Deli on Cherry Street, just east of the courthouse. The courthouse is nearly 70 years old and will be replaced by a bigger, more up-to-date one that's currently being built a block north. The new courthouse is expected to open in early 2021, and the plan is to tear the old one down shortly after. 

The question for people like Vader is: What will replace it? 

"This may be our one and only chance to make that space into something that will attract people, get numbers and foot traffic down here," Vader said. 

Three concepts 

Johnson County is asking residents and people who work there to weigh in on an online survey through Friday, Dec. 20, about what they'd like to see on the site of the old courthouse, which was built in 1952. 

The county has offered three general concepts for the site, which officials are calling "Johnson County Square." All are centered around a public green space with a variety of potential amenities, including an ice rink, a dog park and an art garden. 

Credit Johnson County
Johnson County has put forward three initial designs for the "Johnson County Square" project, which will replace the old courthouse once it's demolished.

Vader said he wants to see some kind of performance space or stage, envisioning crowds of pedestrians on nights and weekends.    

"If you get a concert or a play or a choir, that’s going to bring 50 to 500 people immediately," he said. "That's what this downtown needs." 

Project manager Dan Wehmueller said the county has been gathering public feedback since September. The most popular ideas so far, he said, have been for the site to have a "regional attraction" and a space for "gathering and eating." 

"I think the hope is that this is a space that’s going to activate downtown Olathe," he said. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR
Willie Vader believes a revamped courthouse site could make downtown Olathe a 'destination' spot.

More than 1,700 people have responded to the online survey, on top of more than 250 people who attended a series of public meetings about the project this fall. Another public meeting is scheduled for February. 

After feedback closes, Wehmueller said, a steering committee will get down to planning and approving the details of the project. The hope is that Johnson County Square will begin to take shape in late summer or early fall of 2021. 

"We want to gather everyone’s idea so we can sort through all the creative options out there and whittle it down to the ones that have the most energy and excitement behind them," Wehmueller said. 

'Destination' Olathe 

The Johnson County Square project comes as Olathe is already trying to remake its downtown. The city is set to tear down a public library near the courthouse and replace it with a five-story building that could include shops, offices and a restaurant. 

City planner Emily Carrillo said the county-run project to replace the old courthouse, which is outdated and rife with security concerns due to lack of space, is a "natural fit" in Olathe's bigger designs. 

"We’re trying to transform that district from a government office, Monday through Friday, 8-to-5 kind of space, to giving people a reason to come down there," she said.

A revamped courthouse site could be a "catalyst" for more downtown development, she said. 

That's Vader's hope, because, outside of a few locals and lawyers, he said it's hard to drum up consistent crowds at his bar. 

"If there are no trials going on, it can be hit-or-miss," he said. "When they're going to the courthouse, people like to go in and out as quickly as they can. I get that. But this could make downtown Olathe a destination."

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The courthouse is expected to be torn down in early 2021, after the new one opens.

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him on Twitter: @kcurkyle. 

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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