AoA move to 'The Center' a story worth re-telling

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The Center, home of Arts of the Albemarle, is located in the renovated Lowery-Chesson building.

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021419 Phillip Hornthal

By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 17, 2019

This year’s Arts of The Albemarle Gala will celebrate a decade of AoA’s new home at The Center and a corresponding metamorphosis from a small gallery of visual art to a busy hub for visual and performing arts and a crucial economic driver for downtown.

Sue Thomson, one of the organizers of the event, said the gala will feature a live band and food and also will include a celebration of the organization’s history.

“I think it will just be a fun party and celebration,” Thomson said. “We are delighted to celebrate 10 years.”

The gala will be Feb. 23 from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at The Center, AoA’s headquarters at the intersection of Main Street and Poindexter Street. Balcony seats are still available at $60 each.

To buy tickets you may call or stop by The Center between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday.

The Center and AoA have become an engine that drives downtown Elizabeth City.

Local attorney Phil Hornthal, who was a board member of the Pasquotank County Arts Council during the time the organization moved to its current location and adopted the Arts of The Albemarle moniker, said no one really understood at the time how much of a difference relocating the nonprofit to the former Lowry-Chesson Building would make for the arts and for downtown.

Moving to the new location, known as “The Center,” was pivotal for AoA, he said.

“It really expanded the mission of what we did,” Hornthal said.“(AoA) really has become an economic driver.”

Previously, AoA basically had displayed paintings and other visual art in the Sharber Building — now home to Port Discover — but didn’t really venture into live performances and classes the way the organization does now, according to Hornthal.

“I don’t think any of us really knew how that project was going to change our direction,” Hornthal said.

Thomson said AoA’s importance to downtown can’t be overstated.

“It has done an enormous amount for downtown and for business,” she said. “I think it’s the soul of the town in many ways.”

Phil Hornthal joined the Pasquotank Arts Council Board in 1999. He said he really didn’t have much of a background in the arts but agreed to serve.

George Jackson came to a meeting shortly after Hornthal joined the board and made a presentation on why the organization should buy the vacant building on the corner of Main Street and Poindexter Street.

Hornthal said he told Jackson then that he would back the plan if Jackson would join the board.

Things really took off after the nonprofit began to involve a Raleigh-based consultant, he said.

“He really galvanized the board,” Hornthal said of the consultant. “He came down and walked through the building with us and showed us what was possible.”

Hornthal, Jackson and the late Camilla Hull co-chaired the Building Committee and brought Randy Midgett onto the board. Midgett, an engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation, brought much-needed expertise in engineering and construction to the project, Hornthal said.

“He served as a kind of owner’s agent for us,” Hornthal said. “There’s no telling how much money he saved us.”

A key piece of the puzzle was securing about $500,000 in historic preservation tax credits for the project.

Jackson said the Elizabeth City Historic Neighborhood Association, which had acquired the Lowry-Chesson Building with a view to saving the structure, approached him about helping rehabilitate the building because at the time he owned a couple of buildings downtown and he had experience with historic tax credits.

By the time Jackson became involved there already was a budding idea within ECHNA and among others in the community that the Pasquotank County Arts Council -- what is now Arts of The Albemarle -- would be an ideal tenant for the structure.

Thomson said Camilla Hull more than anyone else really pushed the idea that the arts group should move into the building.

Bill Owens, who at the time was serving in the N.C. House of Representatives, secured some seed money for the project from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which was the first big pledge and really got the campaign off to a strong start, Jackson recalled.

Pasquotank County and the City of Elizabeth City followed with large pledges of support, Jackson said, and as committee members began asking local individuals for contributions “people rose to the occasion.”

Jackson said Russell Twiford made the largest individual contribution.

The economy was strong at the time, and it was a good time to do the capital campaign, Jackson said.

Hornthal recalled that Peter Thomson put together a promotional video for the campaign that was called “Together Building a Home for Arts in the Albemarle.” The video was widely used in explaining the project and soliciting donations, Hornthal said.

Encore Theater also provided strong leadership for the fundraising effort, Jackson said.

“They were very much involved and important in making it all come together,” Jackson said of Encore’s role.

The capital campaign began in 2005 with a goal of raising $1 million but ended up being around $3 million.

“It grew as we went along,” Jackson said.

“It exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Jackson said.

Hornthal agreed.

“It was quite a lot of money to raise for this small town,” Hornthal said. “Looking back on it, I still can’t believe that we did it.”


If you want to go...

What: Arts of the Albemarle Gala

When: Saturday, Feb. 23, 6:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Where: The Center, Main Street, Elizabeth City

Tickets: $60, available at The Center