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Illustration by Robert Meganck
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Photo by Sarah Walor
Hugh Cline, a Chester native, donated $50,000 to the art center's fundraising campaign.
Community leaders first started talking about a performing arts center to be built in Chester back in the 1980s. Now well into its fourth decade of planning, the project surmounted a $1.1 million fundraising deadline in November, thanks largely to a last-minute push by retired Richmond businessman and Chester native Hugh Cline.
“This thing was on life support, and we were trying to decide whether it was going to die,” says Cline, a 1965 graduate of Chester’s Thomas Dale High School. “It just looked like it was all going down the drain. There didn’t seem to be anybody who was ready to take this thing on, and it was something I really felt needed to be done. I didn’t realize it was going to turn into quite a full-time job, but I had the time.”
Organizers plan to break ground on the $8.5 million Chesterfield Center for the Arts in fall 2015, with the facility opening in 2016. It will include a 350-seat theater, a multipurpose room and catering kitchen for receptions and meetings, classrooms and a lobby that can serve as an art gallery.
Cline, who sold his wholesale appliance business a decade ago and still owns commercial real estate in Chester, contributed $50,000 to the project and spearheaded an effort that raised more than $1 million in pledges for the center during six months in 2014.
MeadWestvaco Corp. and former grocery magnates Robert “Bobby” Ukrop and Jim Ukrop made sizeable donations to the project. Chester developer George P. Emerson Jr. contributed $50,000, and Richard Smith, owner of the RJ Smith Cos. construction firm, pledged a $100,000 in-kind donation to build a parking lot at the center.
In the mid-1990s, the county Board of Supervisors allocated money to build a new public library branch in Chester. The project included the purchase of land on an adjacent lot for the arts center, intended to be built in a second phase. In 2004, Chesterfield residents voted in favor of a county referendum to build the proposed arts center, but the county Board of Supervisors required that the community raise $1.1 million toward the project before the county board would approve the sale of the bonds, which were set to expire in November 2014. Now that the fundraising goal has been reached, the county Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the bond purchase.
After the 2008 economic downturn, fundraising became difficult, and prior to 2014, the arts center’s nonprofit foundation had raised only about $75,000 for feasibility studies and needs assessments.
“We got caught in the downturn of the economy. We ran out of time. Luckily, in the 11th hour we’ve come through with enough money to impress the supervisors,” says local Realtor Jim Daniels, a past president of both the Chester Business Association and the Chesterfield Historical Society. Daniels has lobbied county officials for the project for about 25 years.
Cline “really made a huge difference in where we are today,” says Betty Matthews, longtime chairwoman of the nonprofit Chesterfield Center for the Arts Foundation. “He put together a group of people on his fundraising committee that have worked very hard.”
“The first thing that I thought of when I saw that the fundraising goal had been reached was picturing a smile on my mom’s face,” says Gary L. Armstrong, executive vice president and chief lending officer of Henrico-based First Capital Bank. Armstrong has led previous fundraising efforts for the arts center; his parents, Larry and Dottie Armstrong, founded the John Rolfe Players, a Chester-area amateur theatrical troupe that was active from the 1950s to the 1980s and mounted productions in the auditorium at Thomas Dale High School. Dottie Armstrong was the first to propose the arts center, and when she died in 1995, county officials discussed naming the center or its auditorium for her. (Gary Armstrong’s brother, Brad, is the former founding president and CEO of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, parent organization for Richmond CenterStage and the Altria Theater.)
“We know there’s a lot more work to do, and the Armstrong family will be contributing in a substantial way, hopefully,” says Gary Armstrong. “We just very much appreciate the hard work of Hugh Cline and his group to rally the community.”
Cline’s late parents, Custis and Panchita, had six children and ran a family-owned appliance business in Chester that they opened in 1947. Cline’s mother, who went by Pan, was a major supporter of the John Rolfe Players. Hugh Cline remembers her frequently loaning out the family business’s appliance-moving truck to the Armstrongs so they could load up scenery and props for their community productions.
“I’m not an artsy guy by any means, but I enjoy going to museums; I enjoy going to plays,” says Cline, who thought Chesterfield County residents deserved their own performing arts center instead of always traveling to Richmond or Henrico County for performances.
The group still plans to raise another million to cover operating expenses for the facility for its first few years and is already talking about partnerships with groups like Swift Creek Mill Theatre, which is interested in using the center to mount daytime performances for school children.
Students enrolled at the Specialty Center for Visual and Performing Arts at Thomas Dale High School could get real-world training by helping out with theater productions, Cline says.
The Chesterfield Center for the Arts also hopes to work with The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen to cooperate on booking traveling acts.
“We don’t feel like we’re competing for the same audience. We can work the economies of scale,” says Cline, who envisions offering performers like The Capitol Steps a package deal to perform a few shows at Glen Allen and a few shows at the Chesterfield center.
A new nonprofit foundation with countywide and regional membership is being formed to manage the center, and the county government will handle some or all of the facility’s maintenance needs.
Ultimately, Cline thinks the center will help raise property values and attract new residents and businesses to Chester.
“I’m not sure the folks in Chesterfield fully appreciate the impact that this facility is going to have. It is going to rock their world,” Cline says. “I think this is going to be a huge success … people will [say], ‘I can’t believe we took so long to get something like this.’"