By Rich Heiland
Free Press Publications, LLC
For Walker County News Today
THE CITY OF Huntsville unveiled the long-awaited expansion of the Sam Houston Statue Visitor Center Friday evening to a packed house. The two-hour event featured proclamations, music by the No-Fooling String Band and a “Taste of Huntsville.”
The William Hodges Education Building, named for the late four-term mayor who was instrumental in getting funding for both the original center and the David Adickes statue of Houston, adds 1,000 square feet for meetings, classes and events.
In addition, the center has a full catering kitchen and office space for center and tourism staff. Restroom improvements are included in the project. Huntsville Mayor Andy Brauninger and Walker County Judge Danny Pearce read proclamations honoring Hodges and the center.
The original center opened in 1994 in conjunction with the dedication of the statue. Adickes, who attended the Friday evening ceremony, created the idea of the huge statue and raised money to offset costs. The Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, which initially operated the city-owned facility, raised funds for the base.
The dedication drew then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards as well as CBS Anchorman and SHSU Alum Dan Rather, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, State Representative Allen Hightower, State Senator Jim Turner, former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander (a Republican presidential candidate), and U.S. Republican Charles Wilson.
The chamber operated the center and gift shop until a few years ago when it was taken back by the city. The statue has had more than an estimated 1.4 million visitors since its dedication and the original visitor center ultimately was overwhelmed. Restrooms proved to be inadequate and there was no space for any education programming.
THE CITY FIRST considered expansion in March, 2016, when a design study was approved. Initial cost estimates caused further concerns, but then Economic Director Aron Kulhavy (now city manager) and staff were able to whittle costs down from close to $1.9 million to $1.2 million. Hotel Occupancy Tax funds were used for the bulk of the project with city funds used for periphery work.
The original center had 2,500 square-feet and the new addition, designed by Houston-based firm PGAL Architects, adds 4,000 square-feet. The design matches the existing center.
Tourism Director Kimm Thomas said the space also can be rented by local groups in addition to being used for center programs. The space offers selections from 100 chairs, 10 round tables, 35 rectangle tables with a projector, screen, sound system and podium. Any groups wishing to book the space can contact Leara Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 936-291-9726 .