Bel Al­ton High School open once again

County, alumni as­so­ci­a­tion reach agree­ment

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­news.com

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.

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