(TCC’s Visual Arts Center is leaving its Olde Towne Portsmouth location)

By Jeff Maisey

Back on October 23, Tidewater Community College (TCC) notified Portsmouth city officials it planned to move the school’s Visual Arts Center, located at 340 High Street in Olde Towne Portsmouth.

The move, according to Marian Anderfuren, TCC’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement/Public Information Officer, will take place in phases and be completed by 2020. NOTE: Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander announced the deal in his State of the City address in early March 2018).

While TCC has yet to officially announce where the Visual Arts Center will make its new home, Anderfuren said both Norfolk and Virginia Beach have been considered.

“Of the 700 students, 90% live in Norfolk or Virginia Beach,” said Anderfuren.

TCC operates campuses in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Portsmouth and Norfolk.  TCC’s Visual Arts Center offers an array of programs including graphic design, photography, drawing, painting, pottery, printmaking, and glassblowing. It also houses a first-floor art gallery, which is open to the public on a daily basis. Glassblowing is done on the rooftop.

Anderfuren said with an expanded facility the community college forecasts an immediate 30% increase in enrollment.

Three sources, who each wished not to be identified, have shared TCC likely plans to move its Visual Arts Center to Norfolk’s Arts District, also known as the NEON District, and occupy the building operating currently as the Glass Wheel Studio. A second TCC arts campus building, we are told, would likely be built on the current site of the Greyhound bus station on the corner of Brambleton Avenue and Granby Street as a gateway to the NEON District. Anderfuren would not verify these.

The Greyhound station, according to one Norfolk city official, is on city-owned property and a month-to-month lease.  Greyhound bus terminals would possibly move to share real estate at HRT’s transportation hub on Monticello Avenue for better connectivity.

A move to Norfolk for the TCC Visual Arts Center makes sense on several levels. From the city of Norfolk’s perspective, it would provide stable anchors to a NEON District that has sputtered and flickered with the closings of Alchemy NFK, Work | Release, and several other businesses. The influx of visual arts students, support staff, and faculty would greatly enhance efforts to lease additional retail space and entice further investment in affordable housing. Such a move would also solidify Norfolk’s branding as the arts capitol of the region. Glass art, in particular, is a strength of Norfolk’s major visual art institution, the Chrysler Museum of Art, which operates a satellite glass gallery within close proximity.

For TCC art students, benefits include potential expanded programs, heighten visibility with glassblowing demonstrations on the first floor, an easier and less costly daily commute, and the potential for mentoring from Chrysler Museum in-house and visiting exhibition artists.

For TCC administrators, a NEON District location would translate into heightened brand identity and bring its arts offerings, including the Roper Performing Arts Center, together in downtown Norfolk. Plus, the possibility of increased revenue from student enrollment and charitable donations related to arts education in Norfolk.

While this all comes as positive news for the city of Norfolk, it is not a welcomed result for Portsmouth, a city struggling with the impact of heavily tolled tunnels and a historic downtown that saw the Virginia Sports Museum and Hall of Fame depart this year.

“I think restaurants that support students and teachers are basically going to follow suit and leave,” said Tony Goodwin, a former president of the Olde Towne Business Association.  “They depend on those students to keep them in business. I think it’s pretty clear a sandwich shop and coffee shop will feel the impact dramatically. At the end of the day, if you don’t have foot traffic you don’t have a business.”

The loss of TCC in Olde Towne will certainly have a far reaching negative economic impact on Portsmouth. City officials expressed a sense of betrayal.

According to Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe, on April 4, Tidewater Community College President Dr. Edna Baehre-Kolovani summoned himself, City Manager Dr. Lydia Patton, and then Director of Economic Development Mallory Butler to her office in downtown Norfolk.

“At that meeting was TCC’s president and the executive director of TCC’s Real Estate Foundation, Matt Baumgarten,” said Rowe. “We talked about the importance of keeping TCC’s Visual Arts Center in downtown Portsmouth, and she agreed and so did her real estate guy. We agreed that we would work to that goal.”

The topic of the meeting, according to Mayor Rowe, focused on whether TCC should allocate resources to renovating the building, which the college had leased from the Portsmouth Redevelopment & Housing Authority since 1993.

“They said they had the funds in the TCC Real Estate Foundation to do the renovations,” said Rowe, “so it wasn’t a question of funding; it was a question of practicality. Did it make sense to invest that much money into a building they did not own?”

Mayor Rowe said Baehre-Kolovani told him TCC had made $3.1 million in lease payments since 1993.

“I took the position that we could sell you the building for a dollar,” Rowe said, “or we could enter into a long-term lease much like the state did with the Virginia International Gateway, where the lease runs about 60 years and justified the state putting $320.5 million into improving the marine terminal.”

Rowe said the city of Portsmouth would work around any possible strings to get an acceptable agreement in place. Rowe said his staff would also look at other facilities in downtown Portsmouth as expansion options for additional classrooms. Options shown to Baumgarten included the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame building as well as the second floor space in a building directly across from TCC VAC to create an art campus.

“We left the meeting with this agreement that we would work together to keep the TCC Visual Arts Center in Portsmouth,” said Rowe. “That there would be no unilateral decision made to move it from one location to another.”

Mayor Rowe said Portsmouth city officials did not hear anything back from TCC until October 23.

“Dr. Kolovani called my house asking to set up a meeting,” said Rowe. “She comes in with her Executive Director of Real Estate and announces they’re moving the Visual Arts Center from downtown Portsmouth to downtown Norfolk.

“I said, ‘Well, this is really a surprise to us,’” Rowe continued. “And I reminded her that we agreed it was important to keep the Visual Arts Center in Portsmouth and that we had agreed to work together to accomplish that goal. That we had agreed not to make a unilateral decision. Then she tried to say, ‘Well, we did not hear from you all.’”

Rowe said Kolovani informed him TCC had a conversation with Portsmouth’s Housing Authority, and they would have to sell the building at fair market value.

“The city would have purchased the Visual Arts building from the Housing Authority and then turn around and sell it to TCC for a dollar,” Rowe insisted. “There’s a way to skin that cat.”

As Portsmouth city officials pushed TCC to reconsider, Rowe said it was clear TCC’s Kolovani had made up her mind.

“Kolovani said they were seeking Foundation money and planned to combine culinary arts with the Visual Arts school,” Rowe said. “And the donor that they’re looking at would only supply the money if that combination took place. She said it was a done deal and ‘we’ve worked this out with the city of Norfolk.’”

Rowe then called Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander.

“He said, ‘John, I know nothing about this project and knew nothing of it until Doug Smith (Norfolk City Manager) briefed me on it before I called. City Council has not discussed this and I don’t support it.’”

Rowe said the Perry Foundation is the source of funding TCC lobbied. The Perry Foundation has been a champion in its support for the visual and performing arts in the city of Norfolk.

Rowe called TCC College Board members to determine how the decision was made. The Board’s role is advisory.

“They were shocked and had not heard about this,” said Mayor Rowe. “The president had not discussed this with the Board at all.”

Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe then called Governor Terry McAuliffe’s chief of staff to plead his case.

At the end of the day, Rowe admits the city of Portsmouth has no recourse. That said he’s still furious.

“This is an unusual way of doing business,” said Rowe. “This is a unilateral decision on the part of the current president and it really is a breach of promise.”

In response to Mayor Rowe, TCC’s Marian Anderfuren issued the following statement: “We worked with Portsmouth Economic Development in good faith over a series of months to identify alternative locations in Olde Towne for the Visual Arts Center, including the Sports Hall of Fame. In the end, it was not a question of simply finding a new location for the VAC. TCC’s goal is to co-locate our visual arts programs with an expanded culinary arts program and establish a hospitality program.

“We will continue to be an economic development partner with the city, as we always have, but our first duty is to our students.”

Anderfuren also noted TCC’s other campus location in Portsmouth and a welding training center in Port Norfolk (part of Portsmouth). TCC is also exploring a new skilled trades center in the city.