The Phoenix will rise again

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 20, 2004

A dilapidated East Washington Street building – once a landmark in Suffolk’s black community – is poised to shine once again.

Using a $10,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the city will move forward on a much-discussed proposal to turn the Phoenix Bank of Nansemond building into a black history museum.

The Suffolk City Council accepted the grant and earmarked a $10,000 match – $6,761 in cash and $3,239 in services – during its meeting Wednesday. The council also appointed a 15 member task force to help with the project.

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Located at 339 E. Washington St., the Phoenix Bank housed the first financial institution for the city’s black community. Opened in 1911 by a black man, John W. Richardson, the bank eventually fell victim to the Great Depression and closed in 1937.

In recent years, the rundown structure has been empty, save for a Chinese takeout eatery that leased space.

The city bought the building for $32,000 three years ago to develop it into a museum as part of the city’s $10 million urban revitalization Fairgrounds project.

&uot;Because of its historic use and its function within the Fairgrounds, it is a cultural landmark,&uot; said Jeryl Rose Phillips, the city’s plans and policy coordinator. &uot;We believe it would be a good place to house a museum of local African American history.&uot;

Besides showcasing contributions made by blacks in Suffolk and the former Nansemond County, the museum would feature rotating exhibits.

The $10,000 grant will be used to hire an architectural historian to prepare a historic structure analysis, Phillips said. The report will provide a detailed look at the building’s potential reuse purposes and identify the integral elements of the architecture.

Should the city choose to pursue federal and state tax credits available for historic building restoration, the analysis will be critical, she added.

Phillips refused to estimate when the assessment would get under way or how long the project may take, saying it would be premature so early in the process.

&uot;The assessment is the very, very first step,&uot; she said.

Besides the grant, the city earmarked $100,000 to the Phoenix Bank project this year. The project is also in the city’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan for the next two years.

As the project progresses, Phillips anticipates the city will garner additional grants.

&uot;We want to pursue as many outside funding sources as possible,&uot; she said.

The staff of U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Suffolk, is also keeping their eyes out for available federal funding and grants the city could tap for the project.

In other business, the city council:

*Unanimously approved a subdivision variance request related to the 10-year ownership period for property involved in a family transfer.

Valerie Robinson, who owns three acres on Crittenden Road, requested the variance after her husband, Michael, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, was transferred to Alaska for four years. Although her husband had been set to retire from the military when the house was built, his request was denied after Sept. 11 and the ongoing war on terrorism. His involuntary transfer to Alaska for four years has made it necessary for the Robinsons to sell their house.

Prior to his transfer, the couple had sold off half of their original six-acre parcel.

Under the city’s family transfer ordinance, a person can not sell his house for 10 years after the property is divided without demonstrating a hardship.

*Unanimously approved a plan reducing city water and sewer connection fees for eligible seniors and disabled residents.

Reductions for qualified residents would be given on a sliding scale, based on the homeowner’s income and total financial worth the previous year, said Al Moor, the city’s director of public utilities. The plan is based on the criteria set up in the city’s Property Tax Relief for the Elderly and Disabled, which council approved in April.

Eligibility will be determined by the city’s Department of Social Services. People interested in applying for assistance should contact that agency directly.

*Voted 6-1 to approve a conditional use permit allowing Howard S. and Shirley J. Ryan, property owners in the Woodlake subdivision, to build an accessory apartment.

Much work on the structure has already been done, as the contractors were apparently given the wrong type of permits last year.

During a public hearing, Maria Morales, president of Woodlake Homeowners Association, urged city leaders to deny the request, saying the board was concerned that allowing the apartment would set a bad precedent in the subdivision. Earlier this year, the board approved Ryan’s plans.

Councilman Curtis Milteer questioned Scott Mills, the city’s planning director, on how the wrong permits could have been issued.

*Unanimously approved an ordinance accepting $3.8 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 108 Loan Program for funding the $10 million urban revitalization project, the Fairgrounds.

The council also approved funding a debt service reserve fund in the estimated maximum amount of $325,000.

*Unanimously approved a resolution authorizing City Manager R. Steven Herbert to enter into an agreement with the Hampton Roads Criminal Justice Training Academy for law enforcement training.

For more than two decades, most Suffolk Police Department recruits have been trained at the Chesapeake Police Academy. But moving all training operations to the Hampton site will save money and expand training opportunities for the department, said Police Chief William Freeman.

*Unanimously approved an ordinance accepting $2,714 from the Virginia Department of Aviation. This grant will be used to beef up security at Suffolk Executive Airport. (first reading).

*Unanimously approved an ordinance accepting $4,729 from the Virginia Department of Aviation. The funding will be used for runway maintenance. The ordinance calls for a $526 local cash match (first reading).

*Unanimously approved a conditional use permit allowing LaMont and Constance Adger, property owners, to build an accessory dwelling unit in accordance with the Unified Development Ordinance.

*Unanimously approved an ordinance accepting $7,240 from the developer of the Kings Fork Farm Development for cost participation in the stormwater master mapping project.

*Unanimously approved an ordinance accepting a $5,000 Local Government Challenge Grant renewal award from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. (first reading)

*Unanimously approved an ordinance accepting a $15,000 FIREWISE community grant from the Virginia Department of Forestry. (first reading).

*Unanimously approved an ordinance accepting a $34,940 grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services to fund school resource officer grant. Council also appropriated a$15,060 local cash match. (second reading).

*Unanimously approved an ordinance accepting a $181,639 community corrections

program grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. Council also appropriated a $14,900 local cash match. (second reading)