Old courthouses banking on state money

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas (KXAN) — Take a long, hard look at those old Texas courthouses, because they could be gone in a matter of years.  The National Trust says the structures made the most recent list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Several legislative sessions ago, state lawmakers established a funding program to preserve these treasured icons. But over time, that money has dropped significantly, and some worry it could happen again this session.

Sitting across the street from the Comal County Courthouse on Tuesday, Gene Watson and her sister Wanda waited for something 114 years in the making.

"They've done a good job, and it means so much to the county,” Watson said, staring up at the limestone turret. "I have four children, 10 grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and I’m glad this will be here for their future.”

After three years of construction, the Texas Historical Commission rededicated the building to its former glory in the downtown New Braunfels square. Hundreds gathered to tour the refurbished central stairwell to the tower, a two-story district courtroom and arched entrance porches flanked by columns of pink granite.

The celebration was the kick-off to a month-long campaign showcasing the state’s historic courthouses and the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. The idea was established in 1999 by Gov. George W. Bush and the Texas Legislature to help with finances.

Comal County received $3.4 million from THC for its project. To date, 83 courthouses have received grants for significant improvements. But at least 75 additional historic Texas courthouses still need funding for work. Many of those are in rural counties with limited financial resources.

Check out this update on the state's courthouse restoration project.

In Central Texas, the program has helped restore courthouses in Comal, Fayette, Llano, Milam and Williamson Counties. Blanco, Burnet and Gillespie Counties have all been approved for participation but are not yet funded.

The grant application process is highly competitive. The program provides partial matching grants to counties for the makeovers. Crews address threats to the buildings like fire, poor security, unstable masonry and inadequate foundations, according to THC.

In the program’s first year, state lawmakers appropriated $50 million, but the amount in subsequent sessions has waivered with the budget process.

1999 - $50 million 2001 - $50 million 2003 - $45 million 2007 - $62 million 2009 - $20 million 2011 - $20 million

THC has once again requested around $20 million, according to Mark Wolfe, executive director.

"They've really become icons and are symbolic of the community and of the county,” Wolfe said. “We’d love 30, 40, 50 million, but we’re hoping (lawmakers) will at least keep funding where it was in the last two biennia.”

Rep. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels, has a close connection to the Comal County Courthouse – where he and his wife received their marriage license. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he said he plans to speak with Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, about the program’s financial future.

"Certainly, our transportation, water, education are high (priorities) on our list, too,” Miller said. “But we can't forget about our history, because if we don't preserve our history, we're destined to repeat our mistakes."

Since 1999, the  Historic Courthouse Preservation Program has paid off for Texas.

9,693 jobs $367,495,475 economic impact 17 major motion pictures with scenes from a historic Texas courthouse, including “Bernie” and “True Grit”


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