GOLDTHWAITE - Hailing the restoration of the Mills County Courthouse as a project that will boost residents' pride in their community as well as local tourism, state and local officials celebrated the completion Saturday of an endeavor that has been under construction for 2-1/2 years, and seven years in the making.

"Historic preservation is such an economic driver for communities like this," Mark Wolfe, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, told an overflow audience at the district courtroom Saturday afternoon. He said restoration projects create more jobs than new construction, because the focus is on labor - skilled labor, at that - instead of materials often brought in from distant places.

"Now, heritage tours will take over," Wolfe said. "It's the No. 1 growth area in the tourism sector. People come for the tours, and then they see a restaurant and maybe go shopping. This program is so important to rural Texas."

Wolfe said the presence of a restored courthouse inspires residents to improve their own buildings.

"It adds pride to your community," he explained. "Our theme is ‘Real Places Telling Real Stories,' and I think it's appropriate here. If only these walls could talk."

Wolfe said the program has $20 million to fund projects, and that applications for $170 million worth of work had been received. But he praised the Texas Legislature for continuing to fund it in the next two years despite the budget crunch the state faces.

The courthouse, built in Goldthwaite in 1913, is only the 46th in Texas to be approved for work since state Sen. Troy Fraser, whose 24th District includes both Mills and Brown counties, sponsored the bill creating the program 12 years ago.

"It was in 1998 that then-Gov. (George W.) Bush and I had our first conversation about the terrible disrepair of some of our 254 county courthouses," Fraser told the audience. These buildings have been the lifeblood of our counties. With his blessing, I carried the Courthouse Preservation Act and in 1999 won unanimous consent in both houses... I'm honored to be a part of it."

State Rep. Sid Miller of Stephenville mentioned his childhood ties to Mills County, having lived in the Regency area where his family raised sheep and goats.

"When Mills County was added to my district after the 2001 redistricting, my first stop was to introduce myself to the officials in the courthouse. It's a lot different today."

Fraser and Miller jointly presented county officials with a Texas flag that flew over the Capitol in Austin on March 2, Texas Independence Day.

The Mills County project received a $5 million matching grant in 2008. State funds were supplemented by private donations.

Wolfe said he moved to Texas from Colorado to take the historical commission job, and while driving through Goldthwaite, the courthouse caught his attention. That was just before work on the restoration work got under way.

"It was the first (courthouse) I confronted that I thought was so beautiful," Wolfe said, and he remembered thinking it would be a good one to restore. "I didn't know we were already there."

Stan Graves, director of the Texas Historic Courthouse Program, surveyed the full gallery of the district courtroom, including the balcony, and quipped that "the only person missing is Norman Rockwell. You really do turn out to support your public officials and community."

Graves said that he and Wolfe had participated in another courthouse rededication earlier in the week in Houston, and about the same number of people attended.

"This courthouse is an amazing place," Graves added. "We've done things to make it even better than it was when it was built. It's all new."

The courthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is a State Archeological Landmark and a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark.

A letter from Congressman Mike Conaway was read congratulating Mills County on the accomplishment, and praising residents for enhancing Texas' heritage and work ethic. Funding from the state was supplemented by donations from private sources.

Also participating in the program were Kevin Brown, U.S. Army chaplain and minister of the Church of Christ; Boy Scout Troop 77; The Mills Tones Chorus; and Carlos Cloyd, pastor of the First United Methodist Church.

Among other elected officials in attendance were 35th District Judge Steve Ellis, and District Attorney Micheal Murray.