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BUILDING TO BECOME PART OF PLAZA FLORITA RESTORATION EFFORT
A real estate deal worth nearly a quarter million dollars is being struck this month between the city of Cotulla and the Catholic Diocese of Laredo for the purchase of a church hall that will become part of a redevelopment plan for the historic Plaza Florita.
Guadalupe Hall, which served for decades as a community gathering point for religious functions, public events, fundraisers and church-related outreach, is known locally as a onetime Bingo room for its regular game nights but has been vacant for years, according to City Hall.
Situated on the east side of Cotulla, Plaza Florita has been a focal point of the Hispanic community since it was turned into a park more than 85 years ago, featuring a gazebo, stone benches, a dance floor, and landscaping with fountains.
Both the plaza and its adjoining Welhausen School have been designated significant landmarks and are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places for their value to the cultural heritage of the Hispanic community and to the history of Cotulla.
Cotulla City Hall has reported that less than two percent of the historic landmarks in the United States pay tribute to Hispanic culture and heritage, making Plaza Florita and the Welhausen School rarities in preservation, restoration and education efforts at highlighting features of communities with Mexican-American history.
The purchase of Guadalupe Hall this month by the city of Cotulla was approved Thursday, January 12, by a unanimous council vote on a motion by Councilor Gilbert Ayala for $245,000.
Funds for the purchase come directly from the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, constituting surcharges on every hotel room rented in Cotulla. The state of Texas restricts the use of Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues, limiting them solely to development projects that further tourism that will, in turn, benefit the local economy.
The hotel tax is estimated at generating one and a half million dollars per year to the city of Cotulla from nearly two dozen hotels and motels situated within city limits. City financial director Jorge Flores reported at the Jan. 12 meeting that Cotulla collected over $370,000 in hotel tax revenues for the first quarter of the current budget year alone.
Flores told councilors that the hotel tax is now generating more revenue per month than before the coronavirus pandemic.
“The hotel occupancy tax is a dedicated fund,” City Administrator Larry Dovalina said at the January council meeting. “This money can’t be used for water utilities, paving streets, or any other purpose.”
Dovalina said the long-term plan for the redevelopment of Plaza Florita takes into consideration the streets surrounding the site, and a priority for the plaza’s beautification is returning its appearance to the 1930s original. The city has reported in the past year that the project will require removal of the public restrooms and a covered pavilion, basketball court and performance stage presently blocking the view of the Welhausen School from the plaza.
Additions to the park were made by the city and La Salle County government in a joint effort at public recreational facility improvements in the late 1990s with funding from the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife. If Cotulla is to remove those additions from Plaza Florita – including some playground equipment – it must either repay the grant or establish the public facilities elsewhere, according to Dovalina.
Historic preservation of Guadalupe Hall will be undertaken with a view to repurposing the building as part of the plaza development, Dovalina said, and public restrooms will be added to the site. Also in the design plan for the plaza is a full-size statue of its namesake, former educator and mentor Florence Chiles Maltsberger, whose philanthropic work in the 1920s and 1930s helped establish a community park in front of the school. A dedication plaque in her honor remains attached to the central gazebo.
City Hall has contracted Laredo sculptor Armando Hinojosa to produce the bronze, which will be placed in the vicinity of Guadalupe Hall and not on the plaza itself. Hinojosa is responsible for bronzes of US President Lyndon Johnson – who taught at the Welhausen School at the end of the 1920s – and Cotulla founder Joseph Cotulla, whose statue stands at Veterans Park on Main Street downtown. The artist has also sold bronzes of local wildlife and several of his oil paintings to Cotulla, all of which are now on public display at City Hall.
Dovalina said this month’s purchase of the building from the Laredo diocese marks the next step in the city’s plan to apply for a further historic landmark dedication.
“Then we will have a tourist attraction,” the city administrator said of the historic restoration of the plaza and its surroundings. “People will be able to come and see what the plaza looked like, and what the segregated Welhausen School looked like when Johnson taught here.”