Jefferson School: Ready for its closeup after $18 million rehab

When classes ceased in the historic Jefferson School about 10 years ago, the discussion began about what to do with the structure on 4th and Commerce streets that is an important educational resource for generations of African-American families.

Once a plan was established, the private partnership assigned to make it happen still had to find the money to secure a loan for the school's $18-million makeover.

Ground finally broke in August 2011, and more than a year later, on December 11, the ribbon was cut on a shiny and bright Jefferson School City Center.

Visitors saw refinished wood floors and gleaming tall closets in former classrooms that have been re-purposed for the 21st century.

The City Center is anchored on one end by the African American Heritage Center and Carver Recreation on the other, where exercise equipment is already lined up. In between, Martha Jefferson Hospital has provided furnishings for a wellness center, which will focus on childhood obesity.

Parks and recreation chief Brian Daly gives a tour of the city's end of the building, which, at 33,000 square feet, has nearly doubled in size from the space it was occupying before the building was overhauled.

Daly points out the dance studio with its one-way windows, where parents can peer in on their ballerinas without becoming a distraction. There's also an arts and crafts room, a huge gymnastics room, a teen center, a classroom/lounge/meeting room, and, of course, the gymnasium. Below the gym is a multipurpose room with a catering kitchen and stage that will be available for wedding or banquet rentals.

"It's like what we envisioned," enthuses Allison Dickie, one of the 12 members of the Jefferson School Community Partnership LLLP, the private entity created to take advantage of tax credits available for historic restorations. Charlottesville sold the building to the partnership for $100,000, and provided nearly $6 million in loans.

The group also obtained a $12-million loan from Union First Market Bank, which several donors made pledges to secure.

At the ribbon cutting, partnership president (and J.F. Bell Funeral Home general manager) Martin Burks thanked early contributors, including Richard and Leslie Gilliam (he founded Cumberland Resources coal company), John and Renee Grisham, music/real estate magnate Coran Capshaw, and activist/philanthropist Sonjia Smith.

"We're currently in our quiet fundraising stage," said Burks, who also heads the foundation that will support the project long term.

The official open house will be January 19, and by that time, other tenants like Piedmont Virginia Community College, Jefferson Area Board for Aging, and Literacy Volunteers should be moved in.

Also on slate for the school will be the Vinegar Hill Cafe, which will be serving breakfast and lunch during the week.

"We didn't have a cafeteria," says Evelyn Barbour, a former Jefferson student. She points out multiple closets in the back of classrooms, and says they were used to store lunch pails.

Barbour strolls the school she used to attend during the days of segregation and says, "It's like something I'd never dreamed I'd be alive to see."

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Does anyone know what's going in the Heritage Center space after that goes bankrupt?

Wow, bloodhound, you sure are an angry one, aren't you....

Bloodhound asks a fair question. I see no anger in it. I myself see no way they will ever be able to generate the funds, except through donations, to pay back either the bank loan or the city loan. PVCC is only locating there because they are getting cheap rent. Is the City parks and rec paying rent? The Heritage Center certainly has no income stream to pay rent. It looks like a business plan worse than what the Omni ever was.

I'm angry? That's news to me. The Heritage Center idea was a sentimental one and hard to argue against. It was added to the mix to get to get the project moving and to cut any opposition from the local African American community. The fact of the matter it that it will be unsustainable without huge infusions of city cash. That may happen a time or two, but since the project has already accomplished its goal, namely to serve as cover for a handout to several well connected people it will ultimately be allowed to die a slow death. I wonder what will go in its space when it does go. If wondering about things makes me an angry person, then I guess I'll happily be an angry person, if that's what's required.

And I thought I sounded angry . . .

I can see why bloodhound might sound angry but I'd love to hear either an answer to his question or a realistic challenge to his premise.

I cannot detect any indication that Bloodhound sounds angry. Why is it that a bunch of clucks always want to start talking about people when they say something that the clucks do not wish to hear.
Several years ago I attended two meeting of the Jefferson School Task Force because a dear friend of mine was serving on it. It was clearly stated stated by many of the members of the task force at that time when looking at the data provided by the consultants that MAYBE a cultural may be sustainable if it occupied one or two classroom by providing display cases around the school. Anything more than that definitely would not be sustainable. The failure of the museum in Roanoke was given as an example. I guess you clucks would say that those task force members were angry too. Yes. I'm old and angry, angry that clucks are always talking about people like eighth graders.