Private donations needed to save courthouse

RAYMONDVILLE — Finally, the race is on to save the historic Willacy County courthouse.

Last year, officials closed the three-story courthouse, eight years after state officials found widespread mold in the 95-year-old building.

Now, a new Texas Historical Commission grant will pay $402,970 to try to stop the building’s decay, County Judge Aurelio Guerra said yesterday.

But there’s a catch.

To use the grant, the county has to come up with as much as $402,970, Chris Florence, the agency’s spokesman in Austin, said.

So the already financially-strapped county is forming a nonprofit corporation called One County, One Community to seek private donations to raise the money, Guerra said.

This week, representatives from the historical commission met with commissioners to explain the “emergency” grant’s requirements.

The grant would be used to hire experts to determine how to stop the building’s decay, Guerra said.

“That’s what we’re going to need to do to prevent it from deteriorating further,” Guerra said. “We should be able to use those monies to determine for sure what problems we have and how we can best use the money to stop it from deteriorating or minimize it.”

Guerra said the problem starts in the basement.

For decades, heavy rains have raised the area’s shallow water table, flooding the basement, leaving stagnant water in the building.

For years, county officials have sought grant money to try to remove the mold from the Classical Revival courthouse completed in 1921.

In March, county consultant Sally Velasquez testified before the historical commission’s architectural committee, arguing the county’s financial crisis forced officials to seek grant money to save the courthouse.

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.

Officials estimate it would cost $8.5 million to fund the courthouse’s complete restoration.

Guerra has said he believed the county would pursue the project after he left his commissioner’s post 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.