People who want the deteriorating Ralph Bunche High School in King George County turned into a museum and community center have been talking about the need to do something—and waiting for someone to raise the needed funds—longer than the facility served as a high school.
On Tuesday, it looked like a new nonprofit, Ralph Bunche Arts & Humanities Center Inc., was ready to step forward and raise the $6 million needed for restoration. County staff had recommended the King George Board of Supervisors approve a letter of intent between the county and the RBAHC.
It stated that if RBAHC met its designated benchmarks and raised $6 million within three years to repurpose the building, the county would transfer ownership to the group.
But the day before supervisors were scheduled to vote, they received a letter from the Ralph Bunche Alumni Association, which consists of those who graduated between 1949 and 1968, when the facility served black high school students in King George, or those who’ve supported restoration efforts for more than 22 years.
The alumni group did its own polling three days earlier and the general membership unanimously “arrived at a vote of no-confidence” regarding RBAHC and its leader, Marsha Stonehill, wrote Claudette Jordon, president of the alumni association.
“It just kind of appears that Mrs. Stonehill parachuted into the Ralph Bunche organization to get it done,” Jordon said during the public-comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, “but there weren’t the resources, the organization to get it done.”
Their concerns led the supervisors to do what’s become commonplace with Ralph Bunche matters: They postponed action. Several supervisors said they needed time to talk to members of the two groups, given that “most of us only heard about [problems] yesterday,” Supervisor Cathy Binder said. “That is not enough time to make an informed decision.”
Supervisor Chairman Jeff Bueche said he liked the concept presented by Stonehill, which included space for the alumni group’s museum, a performance area and patio, restaurant and outdoor amphitheater.
“What I don’t like is that two nonprofit organizations that have a vision for Ralph Bunche can’t seem to get along, “ he said. “I think it’s a power struggle over a building that belongs to King George County. Here we are again, talking about projects, and the building is still sitting there decaying, and nothing is getting done.”
STILL IN GOOD SHAPE
Ralph Bunche High School was built as a direct result of a 1947 court case that challenged Virginia’s segregation policy. When a federal judge ruled the state had to provide “separate but equal” facilities for whites and blacks, King George County built the school in response and named it after the first African–American to earn the Nobel Prize.
Representatives from the University of Mary Washington’s Department of Historic Preservation, who got involved in 2015, put together exhibit panels that touted the school’s role as a test case. Other localities in the state and nation were watching what happened in King George, alumni members said.
After its days as a high school, Ralph Bunche was used for educational programs and then office space until it closed. Starting in 1997, the alumni group asked county officials to make use of the building before it fell into disrepair.
That had happened by 2012, when the county appointed an advisory group to come up with plans and possible fundraising methods. There were no problems developing ideas, but no group was in a position to raise the needed funds.
As more time passed, the leaky roof caused mold, and there are other problems associated with age.
But the building is still in good shape, and a renovation certainly is doable, said Larry Abell, a Maryland architect who did a similar restoration in Charles County. He’s working with Stonehill and said he was disappointed by the conflict between the two groups.
“One of the reasons I got involved is I thought this was a great opportunity to do something for the African–American community,” he told the supervisors.
Abell’s earlier project started as a county one, but morphed into a statewide effort that became the Maryland Veterans Museum at Patriot Park.
HONORING THE COMMUNITY
Stonehill and fellow board member Julie Chatman said they have similar goals as Abell—and they live and work in the community and care about preserving its heritage. When Stonehill was asked if she thought the project could be considered for a different building, she said no, that the proposal was inspired to honor the African–American community.
Stonehill and Chatman said they needed the official endorsement from the county—the letter of intent that specified the group would eventually own the building. Both said they’d have no problem raising the funds through grants and donations from individuals, businesses and corporations.
Phyllis Cook, a King George resident who had been a member of RBAHC and the alumni group, expressed her skepticism at that. She read a letter to the supervisors Tuesday announcing her resignation from Stonehill’s board because she “witnessed the inability for Marsha and her company to follow through, report board decisions accurately and to distinguish between facts and intentions.”
Cook and Jordon asked the county to find an experienced development company with a proven record to do the restoration work.
NOT ‘THE RIGHT FIT’
King George thought it had such a deal in place in December 2017 with Echelon Resources Inc., a Richmond-based company that has renovated dozens of historic buildings in the region and throughout the state. The county sold 10 acres of the 30-acre property to the developer for $1, with the agreement that Echelon would create a museum for the alumni group in the front and build condos in the back.
But as Echelon and the county got down to business, Echelon President Edwin Gaskin said his company’s development process “never synchronized well” with King George’s rezoning process. There was no bad blood or ill will, he said. “It just wasn’t the right fit.”
Jordon, the alumni president, said every time another developer gets involved, the project changes. Echelon wanted to add condos; Stonehill’s group prefers a restaurant and amphitheater.
Jordon said she prefers the original plan designed by consultants Wiley|Wilson in 2010. King George paid $65,000 for the report, which called for a museum, community center and meeting rooms.
Once more, she stressed that time is of the essence.
“Not only is the building running down and getting moldy,” she said, “so are we.”