A Franklin woman has a dream to light up the Johnson County Courthouse permanently — a dream that’s getting closer to reality.
For years, Helen Hodgen, a 92-year-old lifelong resident of Franklin, has questioned why the courthouse is not lit up at night. So in 2020, she started a quest to have spotlights added to the exterior of the building. Earlier this year, she received a revised estimate of around $80,000 from local contractor Davis Electric.
She then reached out to the Johnson County Community Foundation and asked for help to guide her through the process of getting funding. The foundation’s tagline is connecting people to causes that matter, and this cause mattered to Hodgen, who had previously donated to the foundation, said Kim Kasting, vice president of development for the foundation.
“She came to us as a donor asking how the foundation can help,” Kasting said. “We’ve been helping them navigate the process of getting this done.”
In April of this year, Kasting informed Hodgen that the Franklin Development Corporation, or FDC, had a facade matching grant program that could cover up to $40,000 of the cost of the project, which the county could apply for. She also helped get the proposal onto the agenda for a Johnson County Commissioners meeting.
With this information in hand, Hodgen, her daughter Beth Auld, several family members, and Kasting came before the commissioners on April 25 to present the proposal and the opportunity for matching funds with the hope of the county providing some funding as well.
Under the proposal, eight 18-inch tall poles would be drilled and placed into the ground for spotlights. Two plans would be located on each side of the courthouse, according to the proposed plans.
Hodgen told the commissioners it was a dream come true for her proposal to be heard. She’s wanted something like this to happen for many years — something that she hopes she is able to see before she dies, she said.
“Our courthouse is probably one of the most beautiful buildings in the Midwest, and you could go by at night, and you don’t even see it,” Hodgen said. “… I just feel like it’s a real asset to have the lights there.”
Ruth Phillips, who also supported the proposal, said she’s thought about a project like this for a number of years. She understands how money could be an issue, but all the main roads that lead to the courthouse are lit up brightly and the courthouse is not, she said.
“So the sky is bright, and then you drive up and there’s that gorgeous courthouse, and you barely see the clock unless there’s a moonshine,” Phillips said. “With all the other things going on in Franklin, and everything that’s going to be going on downtown, wouldn’t it just be gorgeous to have that lit up?”
The commissioners did not approve additional funds for the project in April, saying they would take the proposal into consideration with other planned work taking place outside the courthouse. Additional information and discussions were needed, they said.
Commissioner Brian Baird told Hodgen that he has heard a proposal like this before and he had asked for public feedback about it several years ago. At that time, most of the taxpayers who reached out didn’t think the county needed to spend the money on something like that when there were more pressing needs, he said in April.
Since that meeting, the county has agreed verbally to apply for the matching grant, Auld and Kasting said.
In the months after the meeting, and after much thought, Hodgen and her husband Lee, decided to offer $30,000 of their own money for the project, leaving only $10,000 to be raised for their matching half of the grant. So far they’ve raised more than $11,375 with the help of JCCF, surpassing the goal. However, the cost for the project has gone up a bit since it was originally proposed, Kasting said.
Now that funds have been adding up toward the project, Baird believes that the project may be coming forward again at another meeting in the near future, he said via email on Friday. While Baird is not opposed to the lighting, he has some concerns about the financial aspects of the project.
“I, as one Commissioner, am not opposed to the lighting, but do have concerns on the cost of the installation, future maintenance needs, and cost of perpetual operation,” Baird said. “As long as those issues are discussed and resolved in an effective fashion I am fine (with it).”
Baird, who is chairman of the commissioners, has directed the county’s construction manager to consider an underground conduit for the courthouse lighting, along with the annual Holiday Lighting, as the county prepares to rework, repair and revamp the courthouse walkway area for future lighting requests, he said.
Hodgen is excited that her dream is possibly coming true, Auld said. JCCF officials are glad to be helping Hodgen with her cause, as one of their goals is to help people who care, Kasting said.
“If we can accomplish this for one of our donors … that’s what we’re here to do,” she said.
The Johnson County Commissioners want feedback from the public on items affecting county residents.
Brian Baird, District 1: [email protected]
Kevin Walls, District 2: [email protected]
Ron West, District 3: [email protected]
The commissioners’ can be contacted by phone at 317-346-4301, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.