Persistence pays off in Courthouse restoration effort
A $2 million federal appropriation for the restoration of the Merced County Courthouse Museum might not have happened if it weren’t for the determination of local leaders and residents in a community-wide effort.
“This could have been left out,” said County Supervisor Josh Pedrozo. “It took a while to get the bill done, and through the entire process, there were communities across the nation that applied for project funding. We kept up the pressure, and they kept it in.”
Pedrozo said the funding boost — part of the 2022 Appropriations Omnibus bill signed into law on Tuesday by President Biden — will go a long way to help preserve the exterior shell of the nearly 150-year-old Courthouse which has slowly deteriorated over the years. Officials project that more than $4 million is needed for improvements to the structural integrity and long-term sustainability of the building. It’s an ongoing project and future phases include repairing the inside of the structure.
The process was kick-started about three years ago when Merced County leaders set aside $1 million for the project during budget talks after hearing about material falling off the roof of the courthouse, the spread of large bee hives in exterior crevices, and window frames that were buckling.
According to Pedrozo, that initial local investment was important to eventually vie for matching government grants.
“The more you have locally towards a project, the better your project looks,” Pedrozo said.
After Pedrozo was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2020, Museum Director Sarah Lim asked him to keep the courthouse funding a priority. Pedrozo followed suit and was among several key local figures who put in calls to Congressman Jim Costa’s office to include the restoration effort in federal Community Project Funding.
Last June, Congress started marking up individual appropriations bills for the 2022 fiscal year. Discretionary spending levels were no longer subject to caps, as they had been for the past decade. The Biden Administration released its budget with a discretionary funding request of $1.5 trillion, 8.6 percent more than the previous year’s level.
“We told Costa’s office that we wanted the Courthouse Museum at the top of the list,” Pedrozo said. “Then we were able to secure letters of support from Assemblyman Adam Gray’s office, local business leaders, the Merced Boosters, Merced College, high school teachers, and many others.”
He added, “We created this real collaborative group that basically said, ‘Hey, this is what we are going to do.’ … And it bolstered our application. … Everybody did such a great job in making sure this funding became a reality.”
Lloyd Pareira, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, explained why the project continues to be worth the effort.
“The Courthouse Museum is a beautiful landmark and resource for the community,” Pareira said. “Beyond this building being an icon of Merced County, it also serves as an educational hub for our community, including students. This is thanks to the hard work of the Merced County Historical Society, which operates the museum and hosts exhibits, community events, and special programs throughout the year. This is more than a building — it’s a community gathering place.”
It also should be noted that the Merced County Historical Society has also set aside $50,000 of its own money for the restoration project.
After hearing the news about increased funding, the museum director was over the moon.
“We are grateful for Congressman Costa,” Lim said. “Generation after generation of our county’s residents and visitors have climbed its granite steps, passed through its grand hall, and visited the historic courtroom — some for business, some as litigants, and, more recently, as admirers of Merced County’s rich history. This funding will ensure that our beautiful historic courthouse will continue to be a beacon of wisdom and justice and that we are able to properly maintain one of the legacies of our county’s founders.”
Built in 1875, the Merced County Courthouse Museum is one of the oldest buildings in California. It was designed by A.A. Bennett, who also worked on the California State Capitol. Bennett’s Italian palazzo masterpiece in Merced served as a courthouse for 100 years until 1975. During that timeframe, it also housed offices for several county departments, including the Board of Supervisors, Treasurer-Tax Collector, Auditor-Controller, Parks and Recreation, and several others. The Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
The Courthouse Museum was not the only local project that will benefit from Biden’s 2022 spending bill. According to Costa’s office, the City of Dos Palos will receive $279,000 to replace a water clarifier at the city’s aging water plant to ensure uninterrupted service for residents.
“We want to thank Rep. Costa for his continued efforts to ensure the people of Dos Palos have clean, reliable drinking water,” said Darrell Fonseca, the city manager of Dos Palos. “This funding will allow the city to make repairs to its existing water system while progress is made on the construction of a new water plant over the next year. This funding, along with additional state and federal dollars already committed, allows the city to make necessary infrastructure improvements so that our community can avoid critical water shortages and contamination that shut down the water flow to homes in our community in recent years. With this funding, our hope is that residents will have the assurance of clean drinking water as we deal with the fallout from the ongoing drought.”