The Jefferson Center. Courtesy of the center.
The Jefferson Center. Courtesy of the center.

The Jefferson Center Foundation is moving forward at full speed with its performing arts shows and musical education programs.

However, the nonprofit organization said its nearly century-old facility needs $6 million worth of work, including mechanical and fire protection upgrades, and repairs to damaged architecture, roofing, plumbing, electrical systems and other various issues.

It’s not cheap and Jefferson Center executive director Cyrus Pace attended Monday’s Roanoke City Council meeting to ask his landlord — the city — for help to pay for it.

“The reality is that after a 30-year track record of success in fundraising, we have discovered we will never have the level of surplus needed to sustain the building,” Pace said during his 10-minute presentation to the council. “Despite our best efforts to bridge this gap, fundraising, securing grants, accessing additional revenue streams, managing expenses, [the excess funds] continues to decline over time.”

And time is running out.

Repairs needed

The Jefferson Center Foundation offers this breakdown of the repairs needed to the facility, as provided by Hughes Associates Architects & Engineers:

Architecture – Exterior $424,300
Architecture – Interior $646,635
Finishes $713,060
Fire Protection $1,400,000
Mechanical  $1,484,500
Roofing  $772,425
Plumbing & Electrical  $575,225

Grand Totals $6,016,145

Pace said the needs he described are necessary if the Jefferson Center is going to continue to host more than 200 events per year, including its own Jefferson Center Presents series and various performances of the Roanoke Ballet Theatre, Opera Roanoke and the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. The building is also the current home of 18 other nonprofit and for-profit businesses and the home of several arts’ educational programs, including the popular Music Lab.

Pace estimates that if capital funding is not received, those costs will overtake the foundation’s ability to operate these programs in one to two years.

Pace said the funding that helps provide for the various programs — about $2.5 million — is anticipated, but on the contingency that there is a commitment to making the necessary improvements to the building.

“But this goal depends … on a primary commitment from the city, as donors overwhelmingly want to understand the city’s commitment before deciding on their own commitment,” Pace said. “Donors also implied that without city investment, they may be less inclined to maximize their investment.

“Fundraising alone will not solve the challenges that we are facing. Without an early commitment from the city, our fundraising efforts will be hampered.”

The Shaftman Performance Hall at the Jefferson Center. Photo by Brett Winter Lemon.
The Shaftman Performance Hall at the Jefferson Center. Photo by Brett Winter Lemon.

Pace presented a six-year plan on capital improvements that the Jefferson Center hopes the city council can help it figure out how to get handled. Not all the listed repairs, upgrades and hardware replacements need to be done right away, but time is running out to lock in a plan.

First and foremost, Pace said the foundation needs $250,000 as soon as possible to resolve fire code issues and either replace or perform necessary maintenance of several HVAC units. After that, Pace said, the other funds would be needed at about a rate of $1 million per year. The estimates Pace provided came from a consultation done by Roanoke-based Hughes Associates Architects & Engineers.

In the long-term, Pace said other needs include repair of crumbling architecture, carpet replacement, ductwork upgrades and ceiling repairs. His presentation included photos of crumbling architecture, outdated carpeting, failing roof membranes and exterior duct work in poor condition.

“Coupled with our own efforts and support for mission delivery, this addresses the capital needs and keeps Jefferson Center alive.”

The needs that Pace listed were not a surprise to any of the council members who have been to the former Jefferson High School building recently. Still, $6 million is a lot of money.

“One of the challenges we face when you look at capital improvements is what is already scheduled, and what we don’t anticipate,” Roanoke Vice Mayor Joe Cobb said. “While I know to a degree there was no way to control the pace of when some of these things happened, I think what’s startling is what is addressed as immediate needs. … We have so many immediate needs in the city. So, part of the challenge is where [the Jefferson Center’s] needs balance with the other needs in the city.”

Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell said if the Jefferson Center were the only city-owned facility in need of capital improvements right now, a request like this may not be as alarming, but he said his budget team is already trying to figure out how to pay for another $7 million in capital repairs and improvements in other buildings, including city hall.

“There can’t be a discussion regarding the $6 million until we get into the [future budget talks],” Cowell said. “The $250,000 request, I’ll have to look and see to give you an answer. It could be a year-end consideration, but obviously $250,000 is not budgeted toward any expense. It would have to come from something else, or from surplus at the end of the year.”

The work can be spread out, Pace said. But between now and 2029, the estimated cost for all this work will cost a little more than $1 million per year.

This is the biggest ask Jefferson Center officials have made to the city since restoration of the former high school began in 1989. In the past, the city has made other major contributions. Just last year, the city provided $150,000 toward the $550,000 HVAC system replacement in the center’s Shaftman Performance Hall. Another $75,000 was received from a granting agency, and the foundation paid for the rest through operational cash flow of its own.

Also, when Jefferson Center performed its last major fundraising drive between 2015 and 2017, The Roanoke Times reported the city provided $500,000 of the $5 million it collected. Pace said at the time that $3 million of those funds also went to infrastructure improvements.

Pace noted that in the last 34 years, the Jefferson Center Foundation has been efficient in paying as much of its way as possible. Since 1989, it has raised nearly $22 million to use toward its programs and facilities. The city’s part has been just under $6.8 million.

Councilman Peter Volosin asked if the foundation’s board had considered “reimagining” how the building is used.

“If we’re going to put $6 million into capital expenditures, is there a better use for some of these spaces?” Volosin said. “Obviously the theater is going to remain a theater, but can other parts of the building be used in ways that are more advantageous?”

Volosin suggested creating loft-style housing or other creative uses. Pace said some changes would have to be made in the lease and zoning agreements currently in place, but he is open to suggestions.

Pace said his goal on Monday was to begin the conversation on how to find the funding needed to repair the building, which has a mission that the city council has been on record saying it supports.

City council member Stephanie Moon Reynolds, who co-sponsored the request to invite Pace to speak on Monday, said that she would like to discuss the proposal more when the council has its next budget work session in November.

“I think we need to wait and see what the city manager brings back — especially about the immediate needs,” Moon Reynolds said. “Then we can look at what we can do with the capital needs.”

Steve Hemphill has worked for more than 30 years as both a sports reporter and editor. He is the former...