Phoenix poised to rise

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The city is expected to name an architect to oversee the $5.3 million transformation of the dilapidated Phoenix Bank of Nansemond into a black history museum in October.

A task force, which has been studying plans to renovate the former bank on East Washington Street for nearly a year, told the Suffolk City Council last week that it hopes the Suffolk Museum of African-American History

can open in November 2008.

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Plans call for the renovating the 3,800-square-foot building and constructing a 12,000- to 15,000-square-foot addition, said Gerry Jones, the city’s capital improvements director. The facility, located in the heart of the city’s Fairgrounds business district, will have offices on second floor.

If all goes as scheduled, construction would begin in July 2007. But in the immediate future, Jones said, the city needs to stabilize walls and flooring damaged over the years by water exposure.

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 until 2003. The city bought the building for $32,000 three years ago to develop it into a museum as part of the city’s Fairgrounds revitalization project.

So far, the city has gotten $365,222 for the project , said Jeryl Phillips, the city’s plans and policy coordinator. Of that money, $108,000 has come from state and federal grants, with the rest from city coffers.

The city will be going after additional grants and government funding totaling $2.9 million to help foot the bill for the project, Phillips said. The report presented to city lawmakers last week recommends that the city earmark $2 million in its 2007 and 2008 capital improvements budgets for the project.

Mayor Bobby Ralph believes the museum will be an asset to the city’s inventory of cultural offerings.

&uot;The Phoenix Bank has a lot of history behind it and is worth preserving,&uot; he said. &uot;But we need to stay aggressive when it comes to securing as much state and federal funding as we can to make it a reality.&uot;

Helen Daughtrey, co-chairman of the task force, believes city leaders are vested in the project.

&uot;It is going to be an asset, not just for the black community but for the entire city of Suffolk,&uot; she said.

The black history museum, like the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, will be a cultural drawing cards to residents and tourists alike, she said.

&uot;A lot if people in Suffolk, particularly the children, never even knew the bank existed,&uot; she said. &uot;It will let them know they were success black business people in the community…and give them the chance to learn more about their past.&uot;