Smith Center secures community ownership, financial stability
More than a decade ago, in 1998, a visionary idea of creating a center for history and art began to percolate among several of Staunton’s cultural organizations. When the Historic Staunton Foundation purchased an abandoned 1890s railroad hotel, the project was launched. Today, vision has become reality as the Historic Staunton Foundation, the Augusta County Historical Society, and the Staunton-Augusta Art Center have partnered to create a center with history and art galleries, climate controlled archival space for historic documents, blueprints, and photographs, classrooms, lecture rooms, research libraries, a preservation center, offices, and retail space.
Two important events this spring have helped secure that long-term future of the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art. The first event brings the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) into the building through a lease agreement with the Smith Center Foundation. Beginning July 1, ASC will be leasing the entire fourth floor of the building for its office complex. Even as details were being worked out with ASC, a team of local Smith Center supporters was negotiating a financial arrangement that drastically lowers the Smith Center debt and brings the building ownership back into the hands of the three community non-profit partner organizations.
The funds for the original purchase of the building were a gift from R.R. “Jake” Smith who had the vision to see beyond the deteriorating walls of a sagging four-story building and imagine a community cultural partnership that would bring the once grand railroad hotel back to life. In 2012, the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art is named for that self-made businessman and community leader whose hard work and ingenuity not only made him a national leader in the transportation industry, but allowed him to reinvest in and revitalize the community he loved and to create a model for exceptional architectural historic preservation in downtown Staunton.
The building, designed by the area’s premier architect T.J. Collins, had fallen into serious disrepair by the 1990s. With Smith’s generosity, Collins’ original plans, and the design skills of the architectural staff at Frazier Associates, the community was able to envision what this treasure could be if it was fully renovated and restored.
An alliance forged by three leading community organizations to raise the necessary funds to restore the hotel’s grand façade and interior highlights, and create a center for exhibits, research, classes, lectures, and festive occasions, made the vision a reality. With leadership provided by the Staunton Augusta Art Center (SAAC), the Historic Staunton Foundation (HSF), and the Augusta County Historical Society (ACHS), a significant $5 million adaptive use rehabilitation project was launched that included contributions from federal, state, and local governments, private citizens, businesses and foundations.
A partner integral to the success of the project was the Small Deal Fund (SDF), an investment group that assists organizations involved in restoring historic properties. The SDF manages Federal and Virginia Historic Tax credits for projects eligible due to location within an historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The complicated tax credit investment allowed the R.R. Smith Center project to leverage almost $2 million toward building rehabilitation. The Small Deal Fund was able to do what three small non-profit groups could not—accept the state and federal historic tax credits and broker them to provide necessary funding. Without the partnership of the SDF, the dream of the Smith Center would not have come to fruition.
For its services, the Small Deal Fund received a percentage of the tax credit sales and assumed a majority ownership in the building until that percentage fee is paid. This spring, it became time to pay the SDF its fee, thus bringing the Smith Center back under local community ownership. With significant financial help from local citizens, the Smith Center Foundation was able to greatly reduce the $300,000 debt owed the Small Deal Fund. Using those funds raised, a small group of community volunteers skillfully negotiated a settlement that further lowered the final debt and, most importantly, eliminated any ownership rights the Small Deal Fund had established in the Smith Center building. Although the debt still owed is now $100,000, it will be paid in three installments of $33,000 over the next three years. Importantly, no interest will be applied to this debt.
With full ownership now resting with the three community organizations that comprise the Smith Center Foundation (ACHS, HSF, SAAC), the center is poised to ensure the long-term financial health of this amazing facility for the arts, history and culture of the region. A lease agreement and the welcome addition of the American Shakespeare Center in the building, a new business plan that will devote funds annually to the long-term maintenance of this community resource, and a restructuring of the Smith Center Foundation with a greater focus on the long-term success of the Smith Center, will all ensure that the Smith Center will remain a viable community resource for the cultural and economic growth of the Staunton community.