Fairgrounds group responds to columnist

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 12, 2003

Editor, the News-Herald:

As chair and vice chair of the Fairgrounds Revitalization Plan Citizens Oversight Committee, we want to respond to Robert Pocklington’s commentary printed April 24, 2003, regarding the city’s purchase of and future plans for the Phoenix Bank of Nansemond Building on East Washington Street. We find his remarks insensitive to and ignorant of Suffolk’s African-American heritage and long-range plans. We want to make people aware of our work with city leaders to restore this building to its former prominence on East Washington Street.

In recent years our city has come to value its past and has made plans to revitalize Suffolk’s historic downtown and its neighborhoods. In 1998, City Council adopted the Downtown Initiatives Plan as part of the City’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan. Since then, several community-based Downtown neighborhood revitalization plans have been prepared and also made a part of the 2018 Plan. The East Washington Street Neighborhoods Initiatives Plan and the Fairgrounds Revitalization Plan are two of these plans, and they both include the 200 block of East Washington Street where the Phoenix Building is located.

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The Fairgrounds Revitalization Plan contains a new vision for the Fairgrounds, celebrating what it was and building on that history for its future. That vision came from us – the current and former residents, business owners, churches and civic leaders who participated in a three-day visioning session on July 16-19, 2001. We all agreed that, &uot;the Fairgrounds area should be revitalized as a mixed-income residential neighborhood with new and rehabilitated houses and a vibrant commercial shopping area on East Washington Street.&uot; Our vision was molded into a plan that was endorsed by a Steering Committee, and received unanimous approval from City Council in June 2002 for adoption into the 2018 Plan. Since then, city staff has been working hard to obtain funding to implement the plan through numerous state and federal programs, grants and loans. City Council has also stepped up to help by committing $1.2 million as match over a five-year period.

The Fairgrounds Plan contains nine major initiatives, one of which is the revitalization of East Washington Street from Pinner Street to Factory Street. Part of that initiative is the &uot;restoration of the Phoenix Bank Building (possibly into a museum).&uot; Historical records indicate that the Phoenix Bank of Nansemond was founded by a group of African-American farmers and laborers of Suffolk and surround Nansemond County. The bank survived until 1931. During the first 30 years of the 20th-century, many African-American banks prospered and failed across Virginia and, although the Phoenix Bank was one of several in the Tidewater area, it was the only one in Suffolk. The building was determined to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places &uot;as a symbol of the economic development of African-American communities through self-help organizations in a period when discrimination and segregation were commonplace and African-Americans were excluded from many white businesses.&uot; It was listed on the Register in December 1990. Since the bank’s collapse, subsequent owners have not been interested in restoring this landmark building.

Our committee was formed in October 2002, to help implement the Fairgrounds Plan. One of our tasks is to develop a reuse plan for the Phoenix Bank building. Our dream is that this building will be restored and turned into an interpretive museum that explores not only the contributions that African Americans in Suffolk have made to banking, but also to medicine, farming and education. It is our story and one that is not adequately told in any existing museum. What better place for this than in the historical heard of the African-American community? We hope that all Suffolkians and visitors will come here to learn about our heritage as part of the many area attractions on the Historic Walking and Driving Tour of Suffolk.

The public record shows that the city paid $32,000 for the building in November 2002, which was the fair market value. The city bought it to implement the Fairgrounds Revitalization Plan, lest it fall into private ownership again, and to help tour our vision into a reality. Given that Council had approved our plan last year, the city’s action was not cover in the least. Also, Mr. Damiani participated in the Fairgrounds visioning meeting and the public hearings, therefore, he knew of our intentions. It appears that he tried to purchase the building only after the Fairgrounds Plan received a unanimous recommendation of approval from the Planning Commission, and prior to the plan’s adoption by City Council. He never came to the city with his own plans to buy the building to restore it as a museum.

As for Mr. Yuen’s lease, operating a restaurant in this building is not consistent with our plan. Furthermore, the conditions under which the restaurant was operating were deplorable, and we applaud the city for taking whatever steps necessary to shut it down. We are not adverse to an Asian-owned business in the Fairgrounds – just not an unsanitary one and certainly not in this landmark building. We would be happy to work with the city to find another, more appropriate location on East Washington Street for his business.

Shame on you, Mr. Pocklington, for not doing your homework and substituting your personal opinion for fact. We are fully capable of speaking for ourselves and certainly intended to once our plans for the Phoenix Bank museum were further along. You do a great disservice to this community with such divisive remarks. Our vision is that the Fairgrounds will be a place that unites our city, not divides it.

Mrs. Lula Holland, chair

Mrs. Susie Bennett, vice chair

Fairgrounds Revitalization Plan Citizens Oversight Committee