Bel Alton High School open once again
County, alumni association reach agreement
After years of turmoil and waiting, the Charles County Government and the Bel Alton High School Alumni Associa- tion have finally reached an agreement to re-open the school to the public.
The county announced the deal Feb. 9 afternoon along with a sign identifying the historic importance of the school. County Commissioners’ President Peter Murphy (D) said despite the tumultuous past between the county and the school’s alumni associa- tion, reopening the facili- ty has been a priority for both sides.
“We wanted to preserve the heritage and history of that building so we all had a common goal. And, from our standpoint, we also had to find a way that it was financially sustainable and one that would not be a burden to the taxpayers,” Murphy said. “I think that combination of having the same goal brought us here.”
In early 2015, the cur- rent board of county commissioners voted unanimously to change the locks on the school-turned-community-center in closed session due to expenses the county had to cover. The Bel Alton Alumni Association,
a nonprofit organization, took over the building’s lease begin- ning in 1991 — when the coun- ty was going to demolish the building — until the point when it was closed.
The association chose to protest against the closing of the school because it was one of the two high schools left from when the county’s school system was still segregated.
Despite obtaining the lease on the building, the county was still liable for any payments missed by the association. That led to the county incur- ring costs for which it was not prepared.
But now, Murphy said, the county has a plan that will benefit both the alumni association and the county. The county will look to use the space to provide services for county residents and any patrons and hope that it will generate a revenue stream, he said. On top of that, the alumni association will get two rooms within the building to use for any services it may like to do.
There are “a number of offic- es,” Murphy said, on the bot- tom level of the building that could make an ideal location for businesses looking to perform administrative services. The county has not decided how it will use the remaining spaces, he said, but that could be among its plans along with the use of a dental office within the building.
Joan Jones, the president of the alumni association devel- opment group, said the associ- ation settled on an agreement that it was pleased with and got the group in the building — the first step for the association, she said. This is a way to have a great impact on the community, she noted.
“This was the main thing for them, was to allow them to have events there and to have space,” Jones said.
For 25 years, Jones said, the alumni association worked to keep the school from being demolished. The organization raised $6 million in that span of time to continuously make payments on utilities, electric- ity and other amenities on the building that sometimes cost between $15,000 and $20,000 per month.
As a nonprofit organization, she said, that was difficult to handle. Those payments are in the hands of the county now, which can be considered a good thing.
There will be an adjustment, she said, because all rooms are not available to the association like they have been in the past. The heritage room, dental office and kitchen — where many events were facilitated and catered — are all under county control, according to Jones.
That may have an impact on what the community can do, she said. People worked in the cafe and were able to launch different events while keeping their money within the com- munity, said Jones, but now it is out of the alumni association’s control.
There may come a point in time where the association is able to use that space with permission from the county, but that is not something that is currently being explored at this time.
“We’ll see,” Jones said. “We’re just looking forward to getting the community back in the building.”
Janice Wilson, president of the Charles County NAACP branch, said she is excited to see the building opening back up to the community despite there only being two rooms available to the alumni associ- ation.
Wilson and the NAACP sup- ported and stood with the alumni association two years ago when they protested the coun- ty’s decision to change the locks. She agreed with Jones in that the absence of the kitchen and cafe could change what could be done by the association.
“The NAACP had several events there,” Wilson said. “Miss Molly’s Cafe was a place that everyone frequented.”
Despite that being the case, Wilson said, it is good that the association is back in the building. They can always find ways to get into spaces when needed, as long as the county is open to discussion.
Murphy said the county has not decided how every space will be used at this point, but in the future there could be opportunities for the association to rent or lease out spaces it have used in the past.
“They would be like ever yone else in that situation,” he said.
County Commissioner Debra Davis (D) said she was glad to see the members of the association being able to finally return to the building.
“They have been leaders in the community. Even just to restore the building. They have put a lot of sweat and tears in just restoring the building, and that should never be ignored,” Davis said.
Wilson agreed and said she was glad to see things finally going in the right direction.
“I only hope there’s more in the future,” she said.