COTULLA, Texas — The newly restored La Salle County Courthouse opened over the weekend with a flourish — speeches, guided tours and free barbecue.?
When the project started a few years ago, the $8 million budget seemed enormous in a county that has seen little meaningful construction activity in decades.
Now, it’s a tiny slice of the buzz.
“We’ve been out there four years. At that time it was one of the biggest projects in the county,” said La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez Jr. “Now it’s a drop in the bucket.”
La Salle County, traditionally known for its trophy deer, now has a reputation for producing crude oil.
Last year, more than 17.6 million barrels of crude oil came out of La Salle County, up from about 6.3 million barrels in 2011, according to the Texas Railroad Commission.
And it has more rigs drilling wells right now than any other county in the Eagle Ford region. There were 36 rigs operating in La Salle County as of Jan. 18, up from 29 rigs the same week the year before, according to the Baker Hughes Rig Count.
Cotulla, the county seat, has 10 hotels newly constructed or with plans under review. Streets that didn’t exist before the boom have names such as Oilfield Lane and Eagle Ford Drive. EOG Resources, the biggest operator in the Eagle Ford, has moved into town.
And south of the city, Anadarko Petroleum Corp. is building a 156-acre gas processing plant that will process 200 million cubic feet of natural gas liquids each day, but can be expanded to double that capacity. The Gardendale Railroad has grown from virtually nothing to more than 135,000 feet of track.
So while the tan brick 1931 Moderne-style courthouse remains an important community touchstone, its renovation budget pales when compared to oil-related projects.
Bob Zachariah, CEO at the Austin-based HotelWorks Development LLC, expects to break ground around April on a hotel in Cotulla, drawn by both the oil and gas work and the planning the city had done for growth.
“There’s land available in every small town,” Zachariah said. “Look at what’s happening on both sides of I-35 in and near Cotulla. You can see the birth of an urban center. Cotulla will become a sustainable small town. That gives it a tax base. It gives the municipality a long-term structure as well.”
Annie Garcia, chief appraiser in La Salle County, said the county’s taxable value rose from $881 million in 2011 to more than $2.3 billion last year.
“I was used to saying millions and now we’re going into the billions,” Garcia said.
City Administrator Larry Dovalina has been juggling plans for travel centers, strip malls and neighborhoods. “We have the first subdivision in, like, 30 years,” he said.
Because no one at the city had the technical skills or certifications to do code enforcement or construction inspections, Dovalina uses retirees from Laredo, where he once worked, who can come in as consultants.
“That skill is not in the community,” he said. “You previously didn’t have construction going on. All the sudden, in the last two years, we’ve had construction for the first time.”
RV parks and so-called man camps for worker housing have been given temporary three-year permits.
“It’s a special-use permit. We did temporary permits rather than change zoning,” Dovalina said. “That takes care of it for the near term and it limits the impact over time.”
The city also purchased two blocks and may build a new city hall on the spot. It’s seeking landmark status for its historic downtown district. But Dovalina said the city is paying cash for projects or issuing short-term debt, figuring that it cannot rely on the oil and gas industry to keep booming forever.
“It’s a free market, but we wonder what will happen once the play is over,” Dovalina said. “Because just like there’s a boom, there’s a bust.”