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As Lamar County looks into the cost of updating climate control at the county services building, community members have rallied behind saving the old post office.
“Let’s not take a risk on what makes us unique,” said Rob Spencer, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church across the street from the old post office. “The buildings we have downtown make us unique. We can ride this horse a long way.”
Spencer said FUMC plans to spend about $3 million on projects that include refurbishing the old sanctuary, a new youth building and improvements to the parking lot.
The county services building has long been a point of contention as what Precinct 1 Commissioner Lawrence Malone called “a money pit” as various repairs crop up. The building was originally constructed in 1924 and added onto in 1965, County Judge Chuck Superville said. The driver this time is air conditioning.
Cooling in the county services building is handled through an antiquated chilled water system that dates to the 1960s. Engineers said the system probably had a useful lifespan of 20 years when it was installed, and now it is so old that parts have proven almost impossible to find when it breaks down. Superville said it could possibly be repaired at a cost of about $50,000, but the county would likely only get another five years out of it.
Commissioners voted Monday to seek bid specifications for a new air conditioning system, which would give the county an idea of what all needs to be done before actual bids are sought on the work. The motion passed 4-1 with Precinct 3 Commissioner Rodney Pollard objecting.
“I think it’s just a Band-Aid,” he said.
Estimates on a new, modern air conditioning system have ranged from $88,000 to close to $1 million, Superville said. The lower estimates did not include any work to upgrade the electrical system.
“There may be some electrical issues,” he said. “The electrical system is as old as the air conditioning system.”
Malone said representatives from Hargis Electric told him the building has a sufficient power supply to handle a new air conditioning system, although he did not have an estimate on upgrading or replacing the electric panel.
Because of recurring expenses with the building, some commissioners have suggested simply building a new one. Pollard said he does not necessarily want to abandon the old post office, but the county does not know exactly what all the building needs. He mentioned plumbing, wiring and cracking steps. County Tax Assessor-Collector Haskell Maroney said the building needs work to be truly handicapped accessible, and Treasurer Shirley Fults said there is still water getting into the basement at times, such as a drain backing up during a recent rain storm. Glossup said a sealant was applied to the interior, but to truly waterproof the building would require an external sealant as well, which would mean digging up around the foundation.
“I don’t think we need to throw $1 million to half a million at it – or whatever – and patch it. We need to fix it,” Pollard said. “If I serve the taxpayers, I have to look at all options.”
Precinct 4 Commissioner Keith Mitchell also said he has not made up his mind about whether to work on the county services building or construct something new. He said he sees both sides of the argument.
“What this court needs is reliable information, reliable documentation that will support an economically feasible decision,” he said. “I’m for what’s best. Our roots are behind us, and growth is in front of us.”
Ongoing repairs are part of owning an old building, Superville said. As long as taxpayers support the county keeping it up, he said the county needs to keep it for the betterment of downtown. Even if a new building is constructed, he said, there will still be a question of what to do with the old one.
“I think we’ve got a beautiful building downtown,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Lonnie Layton said. “I’m not for vacating the building. We’ve got some major issues with it, but instead of rigging them, I think we should fix them.”
That seemed to be the general consensus of the audience packing the commissioners courtroom.
Patsy Davis said her father opened Williams Sporting Goods downtown in the 1940s.
“We know about maintaining an old building, but we also know how important it is to the community to have merchants downtown,” she said. “When they come to Paris, they want to see the historic parts That’s what drives people.”
A new building still requires ongoing maintenance said her husband, Norm Davis, and nothing the county built would be as structurally sound as the old post office.
“If we take care of it, it’s going to pay us back in dividends many times over,” he said. “Please, please, please take care of it.”
The services building is a source of pride for county officials, as well.
“That building is home to us,” Maroney said. “We take pride in what we’ve done to clean up that building.”
The cost of maintaining the building is only one piece of the puzzle, according to Greg Wilson, president of the Paris Downtown Association. Commissioners also need to consider the economic impact of having an abandoned building at the gateway to downtown. The old Gibraltar Hotel and the building across the street are both vacant, and property values in the area are low as a result, he said.
“One of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a long time is what the First United Methodist Church is doing with the parking lot,” Wilson said, referring to plans to beautify the lot with green space and a small “splash park.” “It’s $800,000 with complete buy-in from the church and community.”
Wilson said the old post office could not be anything but a government building. If the county abandoned it, he said, there would not be anyone else who could pick it up. Wiilson said it was ironic that the conversation was taking place on the same day the Lamar County Historic Commission had received an award for its preservation efforts.
At the meeting, commissioners announced the Lamar County Historical Commission received the 2013 Distinguished Service Award from the Texas Historical Commission. The award is given to local organizations that manage successful preservation programs that generate interest in Texas history. Susan Harper said that it is largely a matter of keeping records and “bragging” to the THC about what has been done locally.
“Thank you, commissioners, for your support, and thank you to everyone seated here today,” Harper said. “It’s easy to brag with all your accomplishments.”
The courthouse itself has had ongoing issues with water leaking, and Superville said representatives from the Texas Historic Commission plan to make a presentation to the Commissioners Court in July to discuss ways to fix it.
Liberty National Bank President Carl Cecil said he understands the struggle to use and maintain an old building. The bank has committed $20,000 to the project if it goes through, he said.
“It’s an important building,” he said. “With the American Legion building the shape it’s in, I hate to see this building closed at the gateway to downtown.”
Main Street Coordinator Cheri Bedford said the first quarter of this year alone saw $200,000 invested in downtown. It takes money, but the dividends pay off because potential investors often look downtown first to judge the health of a community, she said.
“We want a thriving downtown. It takes a lot of time and effort to get there,” she said. “I encourage you to make the tough decision to stay in that building and maintain it.”
Kari Daniel, who operates the Green Boutique and lives downtown, is one of those making such an investment, which she said would not be as likely without the county’s support as seen in maintaining the old post office.
“Y’all stepped up and committed to fixing that building. It instilled a lot of confidence downtown,” she said. “It’s something no money can buy, what we have downtown. It’s the heart of the city.”
Without a thriving, viable downtown, tourists are not as interested in a city, Tourism Director Becky Semple said.
“Tourists come to Paris, Texas. We’re not a sleepover spot anymore; we are a destination,” she said. “People come in to the Chamber of Commerce and they say, ‘You have such a beautiful town. I wish we hadn’t torn our historic buildings down.’”
In other business, commissioners: