Group making progress on arts center

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 8, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Generations of Suffolk citizens shared learning, laughter, loyalty, and tears inside the hallowed halls of old Suffolk High School. From the time when it first opened in 1922, the school had spirit and pride and those attributes were not only evident in the classical revival architecture, but also in every graduating class up to the last in 1990. Since then, the prestigious structure has languished, but that is about to change.

When Suffolk High School was constructed, it was the most modern facility for that era. For decades it poised itself as a symbol of strength, integrity and high standards in the community.


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Since 1990, the halls have been silent and the building stood empty, yet its grandeur is still evident under the peeling paint and boarded windows.

Move ahead to 1998, when several members of the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society and other concerned members of the community had a vision. They took their visualization of what the old school could be to Suffolk City Council.

Realizing the potential worth of what the NSHS envisioned for the city, council members established the &uot;Suffolk High School Task Force.&uot;

That task force, comprised of many Historical Society members, was assigned the daunting chore of expanding upon their vision. They had to come up with an adaptive re-use plan for the old Suffolk High School building; research community needs related to cultural activities; and develop a plan to meet those community needs while preserving the Suffolk High School, a designated historical building.

That vision also included the dream that the building would once again be used and enjoyed by generations of Suffolk citizens.

&uot;That vision has now become a reality and the boards are coming off the windows and doors and Suffolk High School will once again open its doors as a state-of-the-art facility,&uot; said Susan Babiy, a member of the task force. &uot;Through the process of renovations, Suffolk High School will be transformed into the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, and in the year 2005, the center will be open to the public.&uot;

Babiy, also a staff member, added that in 2002, 80 years since its grand opening, a team of Suffolk citizens kick off phase II of a capital campaign fundraising effort for the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. &uot;A feasibility study of the high school building was conducted in early 2001, and the services of Ballou, Justice, Upton architects were secured,&uot; said Babiy. &uot;Experts from other successful arts organizations such as the Cultural Center at Glen Allen, The Jefferson Center in Roanoke, the William King Regional Art Center in Abingdon, and the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg have provided guidance to the project. All of these centers are adaptive-reuse renovation projects involving abandoned high schools in Virginia.&uot;

The Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts will be a community arts facility where all citizens will have the opportunity to participate in a variety of visual, literary, and performing arts activities.

According to Betsy Brothers, a member of the Historical Society and the SCCA task force, the center will capitalize on Suffolk’s unique community with its massive land area that includes city, suburban, and rural areas as well as diverse populations.

In addition, the center will attract citizens from surrounding areas in Virginia and North Carolina that do not offer cultural opportunities. The Suffolk Center will include programs for all age groups, including young children and senior citizens.

This project has gained tremendous support in the community, including from 4th District Congressman J. Randy Forbes.

Forbes has expressed support for the Center for grant assistance because he believes the facility would be an asset to the area.

With a $13,000,000 capital campaign in progress, Forbes’ support was invaluable as the &uot;Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts Foundation&uot; and its board of directors generated $2,000,000 in private gifts. The City of Suffolk then appropriated another $2,600,000 in public support for the project. Meanwhile, Forbes pursued federal appropriations for the Center.

Virginia Senator Frederick M. Quayle said he delights in the fond memories he still holds for the school he attended many years ago. He also urged the Commonwealth of Virginia to give serious consideration to appropriation of funds for the project.

A federal grant was awarded totaling $202,500 was awarded for the project.

Suffolk’s native son, S. Chris Jones, a member of the House of Delegates representing the 76th District, considers the Arts Center project valuable enough to lend his time to serving as an honorary director for the center.

Jones said that with the high costs of construction and renovations, outside support through public and corporate grants is imperative.

Bobby L. Ralph, a member of Suffolk City Council representing the Suffolk Borough, got behind the project with full support. He said development of the arts center is an integral part of the city’s downtown revitalization plan. He also noted that it could only serve to enhance business development throughout the downtown area.

This project has met with tremendous support from a broad spectrum of citizens across the city, and as Ralph noted, it is a project deserving support from every member of the community.

Anyone who would like to contribute to funding the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts should contact the Foundation at 923-0003, or make contributions by check to P.O. Box 147, Suffolk, Va., 23439.