Sometimes keeping an eye on the past can help develop the future; some Rio Grande Valley cities could benefit from a little backward thinking. One city’s example could give officials in other local cities an idea about incorporating their history into future development.
Brownsville is one of the most historic places many people will ever see. It has played a major role in U.S. and border history: The city and surrounding area contain the sites of the first battle of the U.S-Mexican War — May 8, 1846 at Palo Alto — and the last official battle of the Civil War — May 12-13, 1865, at Palmito Ranch, a month after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union government.
Moreover, the city retains a historic look and feel. City officials have long appreciated the unique Spanish and Mexican colonial architecture and worked to preserve historic buildings. Texas Southmost College occupies many of the original buildings of the century-old Fort Brown, and many downtown buildings have been maintained and renovated, augmented by period-themed lighting and other additions.
Local lawyers and other business people have bought old downtown structures, some in disrepair, and used tax breaks and grants to renovate them; one by one those efforts have helped expand the city’s historic district.
Their efforts have paid off. The Central Brownsville Historic District recently was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places. The designation means that more than half of the district’s buildings are historically significant. To help preserve them, property owners in the district who spend at least $5,000 maintaining or improving the properties can request a 20% tax credit.
Separate historic designation for individual buildings from the Texas Historical Commission can bring another 20% in tax breaks.
Some restrictions apply, however; the property’s historic look should not be compromised.
But the historic district is one more unique aspect of the city that can attract tourists, who are a growing economic benefit to the area.
Some Brownsville leaders have more ambitious thoughts about the historic district’s future. They’d like to create a district without auto traffic, turning existing streets into pedestrian walkways lined by historic-themed shops.
Whether that dream is realized remains to be seen.
But other Valley cities have made similar investments in old hotels, theaters and other historic buildings — McAllen’s Quinta Mazatlan and Weslaco’s Cortez Hotel come to mind. Many other cities across the country have bulldozed historic treasures in the name of more modern structures or left them to decay. But growing numbers of people appreciate the more ornate examples of historic architecture, and enjoy taking trips to visit them.
Could Brownsville’s historic designation prove profitable for the city? Do other Valley cities have similar opportunities to capitalize on still-standing examples of the area’s rich history?
The future will tell. But Brownsville’s neighbors might want to monitor the city’s fate as it works to build its future upon the past.