Historical Commission to hear case for Willacy Courthouse

RAYMONDVILLE — The fate of Willacy County’s historic courthouse might soon be decided.

Later this month, the Texas Historical Commission will consider Willacy County’s case for grant funding to help remove mold from the 94-year-old courthouse.

County consultant Sally Velasquez recently testified before the agency’s architectural committee in a public hearing in Austin.

Velasquez’s testimony will help the committee decide whether to recommend the commission approve the county’s request for a $750,000 grant, which would require the county fund a $750,000 match.

“It’s an opportunity for applicants to speak in public in support of their grant applications to make their case as to why their courthouse is deserving of funding,” Chris Florance, the agency’s spokesman, said.

On April 29, the historical commission meets to decide whether it will award the grant, Florance said.

Velasquez said she testified before the architectural committee March 25.

“Willacy County is in financial urgent need due to major local employers’ losses,” Velasquez testified.

Velasquez referred to last year’s closure of the Willacy County Correctional Center, which slashed a third of the county’s $8.1 million general fund budget while laying off 400 employees, and this year’s Walmart closing, which laid off 149 workers in Raymondville.

The county is competing among 25 counties for part of $20 million earmarked for restoration of Texas county courthouses, Florance said.

Willacy County Judge Aurelio Guerra described the three-story courthouse as “a landmark historic structure.”

“The preservation of the courthouse is a meaningful project because it is the pillar of the community,” Guerra said in a statement. “As leaders, we need to come together and demonstrate our support in community partnership and allow unwavering commitment to ensure our courthouse remains structurally stable with the integrity to be restored for community uses and its Texas history remains alive and present for our future generations.”

Guerra has said the county would seek donations to raise money to fund its matching share of the state grant.

Donations can me made to the Save Willacy County Courthouse Fund at Guerra’s office, 576 W. Main St., Raymondville, Texas, 78580.

More than a year ago, officials closed the courthouse, despite concerns its lack of air conditioning would worsen the mold problem.

Commissioners closed the courthouse in February 2015 after widespread mold forced them to move employees into the Administration Building, which cost $2.1 million to renovate into offices.

In 2008, the Texas Department of Health found mold in the courthouse, recommending officials take steps to remove it.

By 2010, the county had paid $55,000 to draft a preservation master plan it presented to the historical commission as a prerequisite to a grant application.

Guerra has said he believed the county would pursue the project after he left office at the end of 2010.

Past County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr. said his administration worked to apply for a grant to renovate the courthouse but did not go through with an application because the historical commission lacked funding for the project.