Despite a long battle over funding between FEMA, Wharton County officials and The Wharton County Museum board, the Wharton County Historical Museum’s construction to repair the damages sustained during Hurricane Harvey is near completion.
According to Wharton County Judge Phillip Spenrath, the county’s decision to press forward with construction without FEMA funds saved both the museum board and county taxpayers money, hassle and time.
“The museum was redone without FEMA funds and that was a battle right there that took a year and a half,” Spenrath told The County Gin. “FEMA was willing to give us $100,000, but there were all kinds of guidelines. So, we worked with the museum board for about a year and a half and realized it wasn’t going to happen.”
FEMA would only distribute funds after the county reached $500,000, which was equal to the county’s insurance deductible amount, but far greater than the cost of reconstruction without making an insurance claim.
“So, when FEMA came in, they said, you should have had flood insurance. We didn’t have flood insurance because no one knew (the museum) was in the flood plain since it hadn’t flooded since 1908 or something like that,” Spenrath told The Gin. “FEMA was going to pay anything after $500,000. Our regular insurance on the building (not flood insurance) had a $500,000 deductible. They were going to give us funds over $500,000 and when they came in, the total project was going to cost $480,000, but came in for $100,000 less (totaling $380,000).”
‘It’s our heritage. It’s who we are. It preserves the past and tells the story of how we are here today.’
Once county officials made the decision to move forward without the assistance of FEMA, it was left to the county officials and museum board to work out how the construction was to be funded.
“This has been in the works since Hurricane Harvey, going on three years,” Spenrath said. “We (the county) budgeted $300,000 and that includes our share of the engineering and then the museum board is paying the rest.”
Wharton County received the land from the Johnson Foundation for the site of the museum in 1980.
While the county owns the land and building, the contents and operation costs are the responsibility of the Wharton County Museum. Even though ownership is split, both parties realize the importance of reopening the museum.
“The Johnson Foundation gave their house to a museum on the condition that there would be only one museum,” Spenrath said. “We inherited that, but it’s funded by the museum. I think we give about $45,000 a year, but they fund it (the operation and contents). So, there’s one reason there was a public interest. The Wharton Chamber of Commerce also sets up a lot of tours from Houston. The first stop is the museum. So, the museum and the Wharton Economic Development Corporation say the museum is a point of economic interest.”
Once the final construction numbers came in, Spenrath’s hesitations with utilizing FEMA funding were shown to be justified. In fact, the county was able to save money.
“There wasn’t necessarily money left on the table; we got it for cheaper,” Spenrath said. “The project came in around $380,000, so it was well under the FEMA amount.”
The Wharton County Historical Museum, along with the 20th Century Technology Museum project a fall 2020 reopening.
“It’s our heritage,” Spenrath told The Gin. “It’s who we are. It preserves the past and tells the story of how we are here today.”
More news and updates can be obtained by calling the museum at (979) 532-2600.
Natalie Frels-Busby also contributed to this article.