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The much-ballyhooed San Antonio Tricentennial marking the city’s 300th anniversary is just around the corner, scheduled for May 2018.

It seems ironic the same year the city celebrates its rich history, we’ll likely be saying “adios” to the Institute of Texan Cultures. After all, the institute was created to preserve the heritage of the diverse groups and nations making Texas what it is today.

In May 2016, we learned the University of Texas at San Antonio, the ITC’s parent, had begun the long goodbye to the facility as we know it. UTSA issued a request for qualifications to identify firms or partnerships interested in leasing part or all of the nearly 15 acres of UTSA’s “Hemisfair campus” — now a part of the massive Hemisfair redevelopment, some of the most valuable real estate downtown. Terms allow the tenant to raze the building.

One year later, UTSA took the next step – a request for proposals from qualified investors. The deadline is at hand. ITC folks expect to move out of the iconic 1960s building to a “smaller space” in 2019.

The news is no surprise to those following the ITC’s budget problems.

Since it debuted at HemisFair ’68 as the Texas State Exhibits Pavilion, the ITC, like most nonprofits, has depended in large part on state support under a higher education “special items” category. Over the years, backing has dwindled.

In 1991, with the Texas budget underwater, ITC Executive Director John McGiffert said losing state support “… would be almost the death knell for this place.”

According to UTSA officials, the building needs about $16 million in deferred maintenance. There’s a skeleton staff. In 1991, there were 120 full-time employees. By August 2016, the staff had been downsized to 40.

Even beset by shrinking dollars, dedicated employees and volunteers have continued the blockbuster Texas Folklife Festival and the popular Asian Festival. The ITC’s exhibits, programs, library and archives have been maintained. Thousands of schoolchildren still visit. The great educational programs for teachers have almost doubled in size the past three years, as the tricentennial approaches.

However, this past legislative session also saw a strong push to completely eliminate state money for “special items”– the source of more than 50 percent of the ITC’s budget. The writing in red ink is on the ITC’s big concrete wall.

The good news: While the building and prime location may be history, UTSA folks said whoever leases the site should also provide a smaller replacement structure in an acceptable spot. Who decides on what’s acceptable is going to be a critical issue.

I’m going to miss the ITC as it is today. I’ll miss the proud plaza of flags as you enter. I’ll miss sitting on the grassy berms listening to international musicians or watching dancers. I’ll miss the nifty exhibits, from famous Texans’ footwear to the flip side of Eagle Ford Shale, to the space race. I’ll miss taking visitors there. This year, I plan to visit the ITC often, while I still can.

Who knows? Maybe a new home and strong support will help the ITC not only survive, but thrive.

In the end, it’s really not about the building.

It’s the stories — the real lives and legends of those who came before — that carry on the magnificent saga of Texas.

Let’s all hope whatever comes next, the institute continues to protect, preserve and pass along our stories and our cultures for generations to come.

syerkes@localcommunitynews.com

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