When Charlottesville decided to keep the historic Jefferson School and its prime real estate as a community center rather than selling it for condos, a complicated financial structure was required to make the $18 million rehab of the 1926 high school possible.
Four years after the renovated school reopened in 2012, fundraising that was supposed to pay off the loans hasn’t happened, and the city has pledged a $950,000 grant to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to cover its rent for the next few years.
The city sold the school for $100,000 in 2011 to the private Jefferson School Community Partnership LLLP, a move needed to procure the tax credits and loans to make the renovation possible. The plan envisioned was that the nonprofit Jefferson School Foundation would raise enough money to pay off the loans and support the African American Heritage Center.
It hasn’t quite happened that way.
The partnership is working on refinancing a nearly $6 million loan, and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center spun off to be its own nonprofit last year.
Heritage center board secretary Elizabeth Breeden feels the original plan to go from raising “zero to $5 million in five years was setting someone up for failure,” she says. “You’ve got to establish a track record, which the building has done.”
The whole idea of a museum and cultural center to tell the story of African-Americans in Charlottesville is “a new concept,” says Breeden, one that potential contributors were waiting to see prove itself. When the center was under the umbrella of the Jefferson School Foundation, it had some difficulty raising money, says Breeden. “You can’t ask donors for rent.”
The heritage center likely wouldn’t have been able to pay its $210,000 rent without the proposed $950,000 grant from the city. That, says executive director Andrea Douglas, was a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces.
Douglas says the heritage center is facing the same challenges as every other nonprofit in Charlottesville. “We’re trying to raise $254,000 to pay for programming, common area fees and staff,” she says. “The board understands its fundraising job.”
The African American Heritage Center is getting ready to roll out a fundraising campaign that is “aspirational and worthy of what’s been asked of it by the Blue Ribbon Commission,” says Breeden.
Rent for tenants in the building could go down if the Jefferson School Community Partnership succeeds in refinancing a nearly $6 million loan, says partnership president Steve Blaine. “We’ve already got a commitment from the bank for better terms than we have now,” he says. “We don’t know where interest rates will be when the loan is due in another year.”
He says the $500,000 the city chips in to rent Carver Recreation Center helps make it possible to pay back the loan from rent. Other tenants like Sentara, Piedmont Virginia Community College and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging have five-year leases, and most plan to stay at the school, says Blaine.
Some tenants had feared rents would increase, but with the new loan, organizations like Literacy Volunteers could end up saving $15,000 a year, according to executive director Ellen Osborne. “It really is a privilege to be here,” she says.
Osborne believes the city should pay the heritage center’s rent. “This is their building anyway,” she says. “That would be the moral thing to do. They cover rent for McGuffey and the Discovery Museum.” That way, the heritage center could focus on its programs, she says. “It’s to everyone in the building’s benefit if the heritage center flourishes.”
And some, like former city councilor Dede Smith, who is on the African American Heritage Center Board, would like to see the city buy the building, as it did with McGuffey Art Center, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now.
Her hope is the city will do a cost-benefit analysis, and weigh how much it already has spent on the building, including the $6 million CEDA loan, the $500,000 annual rent for Carver Recreation Center and the grants like the $950,000 it plans to make to the heritage center. Over the past four years, the city has budgeted $120,000 to the heritage center and $30,000 to the Jefferson School Foundation.
“The building is undisputedly the most important African-American monument in the city,” says Smith.
“Why wouldn’t we survive?” asks Douglas, at a time when the city is confronting its racial history with Civil War monuments. “If you look at the present climate,” she says, “it’s important.”
- Jefferson School City Center: The building that was once the only educational option for black students in Charlottesville and Albemarle now houses nonprofits and is anchored by Carver Recreation Center and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
- Jefferson School Community Partnership LLLP: The limited liability partnership owns the building, which it bought for $100,000 in 2011 to take advantage of tax credits, because the city or nonprofits aren’t eligible for the credits. A $6 million bank loan, a $6 million CEDA loan and $6 million in tax credits made the $18 million renovation possible.
- Jefferson School Foundation: This nonprofit’s mission was to fundraise to pay off the center’s loans and support the African American Heritage Center. Repeated phone calls to its president, Martin Burks, yielded no response about what the foundation is up to these days.
- Jefferson School African American Heritage Center: The historical and cultural anchor of the project faced doubts from the beginning about its viability. But now as its own nonprofit and with a board ready to kick off a fundraising campaign, “We have every intention of being in the Jefferson School,” says director Andrea Douglas.