Commentary: We should learn a lesson from our mistakes

BY ROBERT MORALES

I don’t remember the old courthouse.  I wish I did. 

I’ve always been interested in history, especially local history. After years of hearing about the glorious old courthouse, I decided to dig through the Advocate archives to try and get some perspective about the mindset in the 1960s. I spent two weekends sifting through story after story during 1964 and 1967. 

When it became apparent that the task had become too daunting, Patricia Golden offered to research the 1963 Advocate archive binder. A special thanks to Patricia. She bookmarked every story that was related to the county commissioners’ discussions about building a new courthouse.

The picture that emerged was not pretty. 

In 1963 when commissioners began talking about a new courthouse, the old courthouse was 51 years old. Clearly the architecture in 1912 was quite different from more “modern” techniques available in 1963. One thing is certain: the county commissioners had no sense of history or the preservation of it.

This is a direct quote from a news account of a commissioners meeting that was published in the May 16, 1963 edition of the Advocate: So the commissioners are now leaning toward prospect of building new buildings. But coming into consideration now, is what to do with the old building. If left it will probably become an even more unsightly eyesore, probably bring about frequent repair costs, and a new site would have to be acquired.
 
An even more unsightly eyesore? This is not news reporting. This is commentary that made its way into what should have been an objective story. 

From this point, it appears that the powers-that-be were totally gun-ho about the prospect of building a new courthouse. We can speculate as to their motives, but we won’t delve into speculation. Let’s argue for a moment that the old courthouse was in such disrepair that a new structure was really needed.
 
The architects that were not named in the May 16, 1963 story said that building a new jail and renovating the old courthouse would be “unsatisfactory.” We can make a logical leap that the architects were pushing hard for new construction because in 1963, $150,000 was a huge amount of money.
 
The eventual cost of the new courthouse was $166,527. When one factors inflation in today’s dollars, that cost would be equal to $1,271,198.47.  

Let’s say that commissioners really believed that it was in the best interest of the citizens of Culberson County to building a new courthouse and a new jail. They were sold a bill of goods by the architects who were eventually hired for the project. What commissioners got was a boring, ugly one-story building that looks more like a nursing home than it does a courthouse.  To use the words of the editor, the new courthouse is definitely unsightly.

Staying with the same theme, let’s say commissioners really felt it was a necessity to build a new courthouse for the sake of efficiency. Commissioners missed a golden opportunity to preserve a signature piece of local history. The vote could have been very different. Commissioners could have elected to build a new structure while keeping the old building. And while it may have been financially unfeasible for the county to keep the old building, if commissioners had sought private investors to maintain the building, they would have likely found several persons willing to keep a part of Culberson County history intact.

One only has to look a few miles to the west and several more miles to the south to see what  our neighboring counties have done with their treasure of a historic courthouse. The Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa has been transformed into the centerpiece of the town. In Sierra Blanca, the Hudspeth County Courthouse is a mammoth structure – perhaps much larger than the county needs – but those leaders chose to keep what they knew was an integral part of their culture and history.

So I ask the question: where are we in 2014 in terms of what our local leaders believe is important?  I’m not sure. The Economic Development Corporation (EDC) has made some strides in helping clean up the town. The EDC should work harder at luring new business to town.  Bringing more business means more jobs. It’s a winning strategy for the business investor and for the locals. The local economy reaps the benefits of enhanced tax revenues.

This town has missed the boat more than once when it comes to luring new business. Instead of using a knee-jerk approach of saying no to potential opportunities, we should look at the bigger picture. Everyone benefits from a vibrant local economy.  We are in a strategically perfect location with Interstate 10, Highway 90 and Highway 54. We are 110 miles from the nearest large city to the west and about 165 miles from the next largest city to our east. It’s a natural stopping point for tourists.

We should take a lesson from the cavalier attitude that was prevalent in 1967 when our old courthouse was demolished. 

Let’s not repeat that same mistake.