Ray: Protecting funding means protecting Texas history

from Austin American-Statesman on

A remarkable thing happened in Austin recently. Six separate historic preservation groups and a throng of concerned citizens came together at Scholz Garten in a rally to help save the Texas Historical Commission, the guardian and nerve center for our heritage, from draconian budget cuts in the Texas Legislature.

Texas music legend Ray Benson of Asleep in the Wheel performed gratis because of his deep passion for Texas history. The 1866 Scholz Garten, a treasured piece of history itself, waived its usual event fee when it learned about the cause. Benson told the enthusiastic crowd that he came to Texas 40 years ago because of its rich history and diverse culture.

United, the crowd called for the Legislature to reject the proposed 77 percent cut to the Texas Historical Commission, a reduction far greater than the average 28 percent reduction recommended for other similar agencies.

Why, in the face of tight spending for public education, health programs and social services is funding for the Texas Historical Commission important to the people of Texas? Remembering Texas' unique history through preservation of historic structures and sites is itself part of our public education.

Imagine a Texas where there was no Alamo for children to visit, or a San Jacinto Battleground covered over with concrete and commercial warehouses. What would it say to Texas children if the magnificent Capitol was still a fire trap, or if the 1856 Governor's Mansion had just been bulldozed after the devastating fire of 2008?

Fortunately, generations of Texas leaders have risen to the challenges of restoration of these historic places. Previous Legislatures have come through with the money necessary to preserve these treasures, and the Texas Historical Commission set high restoration standards and provided preservation expertise.

Imagine a Texas where early Spanish missions, historic graveyards of freed slaves and monuments to our Tejano ancestors no longer exist. The commission has repeatedly joined with local groups to safe keep these landmarks of our diverse culture as well as to support the Heritage Trails that connect them.

Imagine a Texas where historic courthouses from the late 1800s sit dilapidated and fenced off from the public. Contrast this with today; Texans can visit several dozen carefully restored county courthouses. Enter, stop, listen — one can hear the echoes of great Texas courtroom orators, colorful sheriffs and infamous criminals. At the same time, there is the bustle of modern Texans registering births, voting, obtaining licenses, resolving disputes and coming to these outposts of state government and centers of local self-government.

Through the Texas Historical Commission, state money joins with funds raised locally to restore and reuse these centers of government which, in most cases, are also wonderful examples of the architectural prowess of early Texas architects. Another 66 historic courthouses wait in the wings to get started.

Imagine Texas' award-winning Main Street program stopped in its tracks. Run by the Texas Historical Commission, this nationally acclaimed program has helped town after town revitalize its courthouse square or center city. Private investments follow as do customers and tourists generating taxes for the state as well as local governments.

Imagine a Texas where 10,000-year-old traces of the early Texans of antiquity are left unguarded from vandalism and theft. Today, by contrast, the Texas Historical Commission is providing leadership and expertise in order to protect and learn from our ancestors.

Like Benson, who came to Scholz's to sing and shout out for historic preservation, I am an optimist. I do not believe that in 2011, the Texas Legislature will allow the current fiscal crisis to result in inequitable cuts to the Texas Historical Commission or the resulting roll-back in protection of our historic resources.

Ray is president of Preservation Texas Inc., a statewide nonprofit advocate for historic preservation.

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