The construction of the Visitor’s Center, located on Rt. 60 near Rt. 29, is progressing. The exterior work has been completed, and the final interior design received federal approval. Work to finish the Visitor’s Center will begin in the winter of 2015-’16, and is expected to be completed by the summer of 2016.
In addition to tourist information and displays, the Center will provide office space for the Amherst County Economic Authority and the Amherst County Chamber of Commerce. Donations of railroad memorabilia and artifacts are being accepted for display and decoration.
1st Choice Furniture, located in the Amelon Sq. Shopping Center in Madison Heights, opened in May of 2015. Their tens of thousands of sq. ft. of floor space (between Tractor Supply and Food Lion) feature a wide assortment of brand-name tables, sofas, chairs, mattresses, beds, lift chairs, accessories and more, mostly made in the USA!
Why did they choose Amherst County to open their store? According to co-owner and manager Cal Thompson (who has over 23 years of experience in the industry), “We’ve planned to serve the Amherst area community by providing top-name brand furniture at the lowest prices.”
Open seven days weekly, they are fully staffed and receive weekly shipments. Free delivery is available within 15 miles of the store. For more information, see the ad on page 19.
Long-time Amherst County residents Kitty and Derin Foor opened Loose Shoe Brewing Co. in April 2015, in the Ambriar Plaza Shopping Center in the Town of Amherst.
“Amherst’s oldest brewery” offers a large and comfortable taproom that features six revolving taps that offer a variety of craft beers, all made on the premises. For more information, see page 57.
by Sharon Curran Wright
We all recognize the importance of history and welcome the opportunities to view the physical relics of that history in museums and galleries and websites. And it is a rare delight when a piece of history can not only be preserved but also repurposed in its community of origin.
Such is the case of the landmark building on the corner of Second and Washington Streets, originally built in 1882 to house the Amherst Baptist Congregation. The building was shuttered in 2005 and purchased at auction by the County of Amherst. A petition signed by 2000 citizens protested its demolition and found that the building is a significant local work of architecture as its design is in the Italianate style with Gothic accents, one that is rare in Virginia. A grass roots organization began and a board of directors formed to obtain non-profit status. With this, the County Board of Supervisors agreed to grant a five-year lease at a rate of $10 per year, contingent upon $10,000 per year in capital improvements to be made by the new board
Today, Second Stage|Amherst is completing renovations to make the building handicap- accessible and soliciting volunteer labor and materials as well as donations to continue with other projects, such as repairing water-damaged walls, evaluating electrical systems, painting, and obtaining appliances for the kitchen area. The 11,000 square-foot building itself is structurally sound and, according to board member Craig Pleasants, has great acoustics. The pressed-tin ceiling and Corinthian columns create an elegant atmosphere in the main room, and the smaller rooms have plenty of natural light. Already 20+ performances have taken place and included theater, mu-sic, magic, art exhibitions, and more. Cooke Harvey, wilderness educator and farmer, manages the weekly farmers’ and artisans’ markets, which occur every Thursday from April through October on the grounds beneath an ancient shade tree. As of this writing in August, 2015, at least six businesses have signed on to rent from the eight office spaces in the two-story wing that was added in the early 1900s.
All together, these activities reflect the organization’s vision of the place as a shared community space for a variety of purposes:
to attract artists, to act as a focal point for cultural activities, and to add to the quality of life in Amherst. The effort is part of the popular Keep It Local concept. The building is already being used by the Recreation and Parks Department to conduct aerobics and yoga classes and can be rented for events like weddings, group meetings, and birthday parties.
At a public meeting in June, President Suny Monk, former Executive Director of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, asked for ideas about possible uses of the building and grounds. Among those ideas were cooking and craft classes, gardening and health fairs, a winter lecture series, free movie nights, concerts, community theater, and even a food truck and music day. During the meeting three men stood at the old baptismal discussing its future possibilities. Renovations continue apace and lack of funds can be a problem but, as board member John Patteson puts it, “We can make a dollar holler.” Interested volunteers or donors can contact Second Stage|Amherst at www.SecondStageAmherst.org to learn about the various opportunities to take part in this community effort.
by Sharon Curran Wright
After the initial wave of shock that followed the nationally noted announcement of the closure of Sweet Briar College, numerous individuals and entities set about challenging the idea of the inevitable. What seems assured at this point in August, is a continuation of a long and proud history of one of the few remaining women’s colleges in the U.S. It will do so with the full support of the Amherst community, which had festooned the Town of Amherst with pink ribbons and signs that read “We Saved Sweet Briar.”
Anyone might expect an outpouring of support from alumnae, but the speed and effectiveness of their efforts surprised most of the people involved. Savingsweetbriar.com was quickly formed in March 2015 to disseminate information and gain support. Later, the effort became Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., a Virginia non-profit, with the mission to block the school’s closure and to raise funds to erase the school’s budget shortfall. The organization has raised millions of dollars in donations and pledges for the next five years, and by July 28, had already delivered $8.5 million of $12 million promised to the school by Sept. 2. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also unrestricted $16 million from the college’s endowment to be used for operating costs over the next year. A new president, Phillip C. Stone, and completely new board of directors have stepped up to the challenge of reinvigorating Sweet Briar College.
Favorable national news reports and the outstanding efforts to block the closure resulted in another surprising outcome: enrollment had resumed at a welcome clip. President Stone promised that the school would remain open beyond this year and that enrollment would increase. All former faculty and most staff were asked to continue their employment, and previous financial aid packages have been honored for returning students.
The infusion of energy and enthusiasm from alumnae, the new administration, and the community bodes well for the college’s continued existence. David Pugh, Chairman of the Amherst County Board of Supervisors, wrote in support of the lawsuit instituted by County Attorney Ellen Bowyer on behalf of the Commonwealth. In his affidavit he noted that the annual goods and services purchased in Amherst that are related to the college amount to $10 million and that its many cultural programs benefit the entire county.
Among those programs are theater, music and dance productions, horse shows, athletic events, and art gallery and museum exhibitions that are open to the public. Sweet Briar’s swimming pool hosts practice for the Amherst High School’s swim team. The college has held Cultural Arts Day for Amherst County fifth-graders for more than 25 years, offering mini classes taught by faculty and staff in topics ranging from creative writing to the “The Art of Chemistry.” Sweet Briar’s art gallery also hosts tours for Amherst third-graders that combine a study of Sweet Briar’s classical art collection with a study of classical architectural design. Each September, local high school students tag and release butterflies on campus with biology faculty. The college’s Master of Arts in Teaching program also helps to provide the county with student teachers. In the fall there are guided ghost tours on campus, and in the spring are self-guided tours of Sweet Briar House during Virginia Garden Week.
Sweet Briar has also attracted famous visiting speakers over the years and granted public access to their lectures and readings. Among these were writers Maya Angelou, Salmon Rushdie, Jane Smiley and Barbara Kingsolver, and filmmaker and activist Josh Fox.
The college was established as a legacy of Indiana Fletcher Williams in 1901, who left an estate of more than $1 million dollars and 8,000 acres of land, which included the Sweet Briar Plantation. The property now includes 3,250 acres and 21 buildings listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, one of the world’s foremost working retreats for artists, occupies a nearby estate owned by the college.
Sweet Briar’s future looks bright, but it must increase enrollment and find new ways to bring in funds to maintain the school. Some have suggested ideas to improve the attractiveness and viability of the college, such as expanding into online coursework and creating a planned residential or business community on the grounds. Such ideas may fly in the face of those who prefer the revered, traditional focus and ambiance of the original concept, but modern realities require change. Donors who have managed to prevent closure may feel challenged to continue to support the college as it is updated and redesigned.
While much remains to be done to keep the college open in the years ahead, President Stone may have said it best: “At Sweet Briar College, the impossible is just another problem to solve.”