Tentative agreement met for CCC

Published 10:53 am Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Senior center, food pantry to remain operational


CHESAPEAKE — Fears of the possible closure of the Chesapeake Community Center, the Sybene-Chesapeake Senior Center and the Chesapeake Community Mission Outreach food pantry were put to rest Monday when a deal was worked out regarding the ownership and lease of the property on which they operate.

Members of the community center’s board and the Chesapeake School District, which owns the property, met during a school board executive session to come to terms on the use of the former Chesapeake High School property, which houses the two centers and the pantry.

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Doug Scott, a member of the community center’s board, said they received a letter, dated Aug. 11, from the school board’s attorney, Daniel Ruggiero, informing them that the lease on the property would not be renewed when it ran out on May 31, 2017.

The letter stated the school board wanted to provide the center with as much advance notice as possible, and that it hoped the center would continue to operate and make alternative plans for the future.

Supporters of the community center, senior center and food pantry packed the school board’s meeting on Monday, hoping to make their case.

Seated at the front of the room was a table where the community center’s board gathered, including Scott, former Chesapeake Mayor Dick Gilpin, Richard Meyers, who serves as the center’s attorney, and Lawrence County commissioners Bill Pratt and Freddie Hayes Jr.

The audience consisted of supporters and representatives from all three operations, such as community center director Ruth Damron, the Rev. Charles Case of Chesapeake United Methodist, businesswoman Deanna Holliday and Father Charles Moran of St. Ann’s Church.

After the school board handled its routine business for the meeting, the floor was opened up to comments from the public and Scott spoke first.

“If we close the community center, I’m wondering where the food bank and senior center can operate,” he said.

Scott touted the buddy basketball league that meets at the center.

“I’ve seen mothers drop off their kids, where they know they will be safe,” he said.

Scott said he had one question he wanted to ask the board most about the decision not to renew the lease.

“I just want to know why,” he said.

Following Scott, Bill Booth, the co-director of the food pantry shared the figures on how many the group has served.

“If you close us down, you lose a lot of seniors,” he said.

Booth said the food bank fed 3,048 people in 2015, including 2,928 children.

“These are local children who go to school in this district,” he said.

He said the food pantry has served 2,177 families in 2016, including 1,689 seniors.

He said losing the current location would put the pantry at a significant disadvantage and impede operations.

“The food bank is very needed in this area,” he said. “I just want to emphasize that we are very important.”

Following Booth’s pitch, Donna Plybon, a trustee and treasurer for the pantry, recounted the group’s history, beginning in a church basement, then moving to city hall, before settling at its current location.

“It’s for such a good cause,” she said, before concluding by reading testimonials from individuals served by the food bank.

The school board then went into executive session to discuss the matter, while supporters of the community center prepared to make their case after they returned.

The backers of the center were preparing for a public debate, planning to meet at Meyers’ office following the board’s adjournment.

As it turned out, neither action was needed.

After the board met with Ruggiero, Pratt, Hayes, Meyers and the other community board members, an agreement was reached.

When the group emerged, Pratt announced the result, to cheers and applause.

“We’ve come to a tentative resolution on the building,” he said, stating the centers and the food bank would continue to operate and the property would “most likely not be under ownership of Chesapeake schools.”

“We have a couple possibilities for ownership with the county,” Pratt said, though specifics were not announced while the deal is being finalized.

Hayes also said the property would likely come under ownership of the county in some form and said the deal was not worked out until the meeting.

“Nothing’s going to change with the food bank or senior center,” he said. “It should work out and everybody will be happy.”

He said the change in ownership would take effect “as soon as the deal is ready.”

“The important thing is it will remain a community center,” he said.

Following the announcement, the vast majority of the crowd departed, many thanking the commissioners as they exited, and the board officially ended the executive session, which lasted about one hour, and adjourned the meeting shortly after.

Following the meeting, Arthur Suiter, the board’s president, stressed that the board did not seek to shut down the community center.

“No one on this board has ever wanted to close the community center or food bank,” he said, stating the board would be working to resolve the situation and act on the tentative agreement.

He said the decision not to renew the lease had been made solely in the interest of the school district’s finances.

“The property, we still own, and we felt it was asset to make our school system solvent,” he said. “It was never our intent to close anything.”