Voters Give Consent for Callahan County Courthouse Restoration



<Callahan County Courthouse in Baird

In June 2020, the Texas Historical Commission (THC) awarded matching grants totaling $20,038,121 to nine counties as part of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program (THCPP) Round XI grant cycle.

Callahan, Mason, and Taylor counties received construction grants for full restorations, while Kimble, Washington, Wise, and Willacy counties received planning grants to be applied toward the production of construction documents for future applications for full restorations. Duval and Lee counties received emergency grants to address critical issues.

In November 2020, Callahan County citizens voted in support of two propositions related to the courthouse restoration in Baird. Proposition A was for the issuance of bonds of up to $6,980,000 for the local matching grant, while Proposition B was for the issuance of bonds for the renovation, expansion, and improvement of the county annex building, the Calvo Building, and the historic 1877 jail for use as a county office and records archive space.

After the vote, County Judge G. Scott Kniffen agreed to an interview about the upcoming restoration.

What kind of positive impact do you think this courthouse restoration will have on your community?

“A few years ago, the city and a nonprofit organization restored the T&P Railroad Depot at the opposite end of Market Street from the Callahan County Courthouse in Baird. That began revitalizing the downtown, and I hope the courthouse restoration will do the same. Some of the contractors who worked on the window project (funded by an earlier emergency courthouse grant) were from different communities in Callahan County, which had a positive economic impact.

We’re also very interested in the Main Street program for Baird. I think downtown businesses would really benefit from that program. As a railroad town, there are so many amazing buildings with beautiful features, including one with some wonderful stained-glass windows. And there are some magnificent homes that were built and owned by railroad executives, one of which has a stairway that came out of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.”

Why is this courthouse restoration important to Callahan County?

“The courthouse is over 90 years old and there hasn’t been enough repairs or maintenance on the building over the years, so it’s showing its age. There are roof problems, and water infiltration problems in the basement, the elevator pit, and through the walls. Those things must be dealt with or we’ll end up with even more significant and expensive problems in the long run. The people who work and do business in the courthouse deserve a safe and functional building.”

How were Propositions A and B promoted?

“Early in the process, I asked the commissioners court to approve the formation of an ad-hoc advisory committee, including Sandra Rose (county auditor), Jan Windham (county treasurer), Steve Odom (Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3), and Sam Goldsmith (a volunteer with deep knowledge of the courthouse, the county, and its history). It was not a decision-making body. Mrs. Windham’s husband and brother were both county commissioners. With their deep institutional knowledge, that team was invaluable acting as researchers and meeting with the architect to help plan the space for personnel, future county needs, and records storage. This committee provided input into developing the documents that were provided to the public.

The county could not advocate for or speak out against the bond proposals, and everything went through bond council to make sure elected officials didn’t cross that line. Sam Goldsmith raised money to put some ads in the newspaper and create signage. Callahan County funded a video and promotional materials for presentations and citizen education, and the content was vetted by our attorney to ensure it did not cross the line into advocacy… The bond proposal our financial advisor developed estimated an increase in the tax rate of $0.073 per $100 of appraised value, depending on the interest rate. But our bonds have sold since and we got a lower interest rate, which will result in less of an increase in the tax rate. Interest rates are at an all-time low. Comparatively, the bond that funded the original construction of the courthouse was a 40-year-term bond that raised taxes by $0.10/100 valuation.... The THC grant also plays an important role in supporting the project, and we were aware that future funding by the Legislature is uncertain.”

Can you tell me more about the other historic buildings that will be used to support office relocation during the restoration?

“We’re looking at several historic buildings along Market Street in Baird. Some are in better shape than others, and they will need to be rehabilitated. We’re evaluating all these buildings and speaking with their owners. There is also an option to use temporary offices in portable buildings. We have property across from the square, a Head Start building that was given to the county. It has a large parking area and playground that could accommodate portable buildings.

Downtown buildings are within walking distance of the courthouse, which would be helpful. The buildings on Market Street were all built in the early 1900s and could be used for future expansion by the county.

The library and a museum are currently in the basement of the courthouse, and those may need to be relocated as part of the restoration. One of the Market Street buildings could be used to accommodate those functions in the future. There are so many interesting artifacts that should be on view, and a building on Market Street would really increase the number of visitors to the museum.

…The Callahan County seat was originally Belle Plain, but when the railroad was routed through Baird, it became the county seat. The “old jail” was moved to Baird, which will be restored as part of Proposition B to provide secure records storage. The 1877 jail was moved by horse and buggy from Cross Plains to Baird after it became the county seat. We’re going to install climate control to store the permanent archived records there. Our current “new jail” was built in 1898. It has some of the old 1877 jail cells and is still used as a jail.

Proposition B includes an expansion and rehabilitation of the 1939 WPA-constructed hospital building built for sheriff office functions, including dispatch, law enforcement, DPS, game warden, and the emergency center, allowing all those functions to be accommodated within one building. The next big project will be to provide a new jail for the county, and when it comes time, that building will only require jail functions because all other sheriff functions will already be included in the hospital rehabilitation."

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