Tuesday, March 8, 2016
Prepare for lift off
Thanks to a group of engaged and dedicated citizens, the Eagles, mascot of Central High School, will soon soar to new heights as a cultural and educational center.
Central High School, on Dogtown Road just south of Whitehall Road in the north central part of the county, was built in the 1930’s to educate Goochland’s black students. After desegregation, it was the county middle school until the spring of 2007. Then the complex, which includes a gym, cafeteria, auditorium, and athletic fields, fell into disrepair.
Periodic discussions about what to do with the property went nowhere. Bad decisions, like repairing the gym floor without addressing its leaky roof, exacerbated the situation.
A suggestion made at a town hall meeting a few years ago led to creation of a citizen committee to investigate options and propose solutions for Central High’s future. Suggestions made at later town hall meetings and tours of the facility helped the committee find focus.
A proposal and business plan for the rebirth of Central High School was presented to the Board of Supervisors at its March 2 meeting by committee vice chair Sekou Shabaka who explained the process.
Led by Central High alum Gloria Turner, the committee held its first meeting in March 2015. This group of fine citizens met often to brainstorm a list of possible uses that was distilled into the final plan after research and discussion.
Among the possibilities were demolition and sale. Shabaka said those options were “out of the question because it would erase the physical evidence of the hard work that went into the establishment of that school.”
The business plan is reasonable, doable, positive, and self-sustaining. Shabaka said that the committee understood its obligation to produce a return on investment of public funds. (See the supervisors’ March 2 packet on the county website http://www.goochlandva.us/ beginning on page 82 for details.)
Like many school buildings, Central High School was expanded over time. Some of the additions followed the topography of the land using stairways and ramps to negotiate elevation changes. These hallways resemble a skateboard course and do not meet Americans with Disabilities Act access standards.
The committee decided to break the repurposing project into phases. The front portion of the building, including its original 1938 section, is in the best condition. Anticipated uses are: county office space; performing and cultural arts in the old auditorium; classrooms for existing programs; meeting rooms with historical artifacts; flexible space for senior, youth, and family programs; a business incubator; and training facilities.
Programs for seniors, youth, and families will be the focus. Modest fees to offset expenses will be charged for use of the spaces for activities including vendor fairs. Film screening would charge admission. The business incubator will provide basic office space for fledging businesses at modest cost to help them get established.
A couple of years ago, the county earmarked $500,000 in the capital improvement plan for Central High School. So far, approximately $120,000 has been spent to spiff up the gym building including upgrades of restrooms, lobby, and parking lot.
Renovations of the Department of Community Development space in the administration building planned for later this year will dovetail with the Central High School make over. Space at Central High School will be cleaned and prepared for temporary use by the CD staff, after which it will be ready for one of the designated uses.
The county department of social services and the Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services hope to establish some sort of presence at Central High School to be more accessible to the surrounding community.
County Administrator Rebecca Dickson said that it “was a privilege to watch the committee work.” She sat in on many meetings of the committee and gave advice and counsel. Shabaka thanked her for “sticking with us.”
Susan Lascolette, District 1, said that the Central High Committee is “an awesome example of self-government. What you’ve done means so much to the county. You’ve done a much better job than we could have.”
Manuel Alvarez, who represents District 2 where Central High is located, said the committee “allowed us to see the possibilities and answer the question “what if we used the money it would cost to tear down Central High to renovate it instead?’”
Ken Peterson, District 5 congratulated the committee on a “great job, best done by citizens. You anticipated and addressed all of our questions in a true collaboration.”
The work of the Central High Committee will bring new life to a venerable building and community. This is what happens when government empowers citizens and gets out of their way.