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Photo courtsey Thinkstock
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A rendering of the proposed arts center’s performance space Architectural renderings courtesy of Chesterfield Center for the Arts Foundation
About 30 years ago, Chester community members began holding early discussions with Chesterfield County leaders about their need for an arts center. However, three decades later, the lot where the arts center was to be built remains vacant. And the community now faces a fast-approaching 2014 deadline, by which time they must raise $1.1 million or potentially lose nearly $7 million in county funding for the project.
"The need for a cultural arts center in Chesterfield County is something that's been going on for a very long time," says Betty Matthews, chairperson of the nonprofit Chesterfield Center for the Arts Foundation. "There is no cultural arts venue in Chesterfield. The only one that could be considered such is Swift Creek Mill Playhouse, which is wonderful, but that's just theater."
Instead, she says, Chesterfield needs its own arts center to promote multiple art forms, similar to the Glen Allen Cultural Arts Center in Henrico or CenterStage in Richmond.
"It's a quality-of-life issue. You have to have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Otherwise, you're just existing. … It's integral to our quality of life to know that we have cultural arts available to us, and a place to go and enjoy and express our creativity," says Matthews. A retired legislative liaison for the state Department of Rehabilitative Services who studied theater and costume design in college, she has been the lead advocate for the arts center for almost 20 years.
Local Realtor Jim Daniels, a past president of both the Chester Business Association and the Chesterfield Historical Society, has been lobbying county officials for the project since the 1980s. "Chesterfield always prides itself on being a leading-edge community, and this is the kind of facility that counties like we aspire to be usually have," he says.
The project began as an outgrowth of county and community planning for Chester when its community members, such as Daniels and the late Dottie Armstrong, envisioned the development of the Chester Village Green as a focal downtown area to preserve Chester's unique, small-town charm.
Armstrong and her husband, Larry, 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 take up the public banner for the proposed arts center, and when she died in 1995, county officials discussed naming the center or its auditorium for her.
To understand the arts center, one has to understand the original premise of the John Rolfe Players, "which was to bring more cultural diversity to this small town," says one of the couple's sons, Gary L. Armstrong, a banker who lives in Brandermill. His mother loved Chester, "but it didn't have as many cultural opportunities as she would like to see. People didn't go to Richmond as much then. They felt strongly they could create an avenue for people who are arts-oriented in Chester."
Armstrong and his brother, Brad, who was the first executive director of CenterStage, are working with the Chesterfield Center for the Arts Foundation to launch a new fundraising campaign.
"The county has made a nice commitment, and we need the private community to step up and fulfill their part, and we feel we can get it done," Gary Armstrong says. "My brother and I are going to get involved and see if we can't spur a little more activity around the fundraising."
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. The Chester branch was built in 2000, but the lot next door is still vacant.
"Why they did that, who knows?" Matthews asks. "It would have been a lot better for the county to build both buildings at the same time rather than saying, ‘We'll put that off as a second phase.'"
In 2004, the public voted in favor of a county referendum to build the proposed arts center. At that time, the terms of the bond referendum said that the county would provide $5 million to $6 million, and the community would raise a matching amount.
The foundation raised about $75,000 for feasibility studies and needs assessments, but after the 2008 economic downturn, fundraising became much more difficult. Recognizing this, the supervisors reconfigured the terms of the deal, scaling down the arts center to an $8.5 million project and requiring the Chester community to raise $1.1 million and to come up with a plan for operating revenue.
The $1.1 million was supposed to be raised by this November, but by an action of the Chesterfield County Circuit Court, the deadline has been moved to November 2014.
As it stands now, the community still must raise the money and come up with an operating agreement within the next two years, or the bonds may not be sold, says county budget director Alan Carmody. "There most definitely is a sunset ... on the county's ability to sell the debt, which was approved by voters in 2004, or else we lose that authority," Carmody says.
However, he also says that it's possible that if the county feels that the arts foundation is making a good-faith effort and is making progress on fundraising, then the bonds could still be sold even if the $1.1 million isn't fully raised.
"Through all the difficult years, the foundation tried to maintain its relationship with the county, doing what needs to be done to keep it alive … [until] the economy improved," Matthews says. "Here we are, and it's time."
"We've been very patient, and we can be patient for a few years more," says Daniels. "If it weren't for Betty [Matthews], this thing would have died a long time ago. ... When everybody else gets pessimistic and says it will never happen, she keeps it moving forward."