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June 2, 2005

VSDB offers rare inside tour

From: Staunton News Leader, VA - Jun 2, 2005

Threatened, historic school on display Friday

By David Royer/staff

STAUNTON —It cost the Commonwealth of Virginia $25,000 to design and build the Virginia Institute for the Deaf and the Blind in 1839. Today, renovations and modernization to the campus could run more than $20 million.

That's a bargain by Frank Strassler's standards.

"We just cannot replicate work like that in communities like this, probably ever again," said Strassler, executive director of Historic Staunton Foundation. "We certainly can't pay for it."

Strassler will join VSDB superintendent Nancy Armstrong on Friday guiding a rare public tour of some of Staunton's most endangered public buildings. Those taking the tour will get the history behind seven buildings, including the 166-year-old Greek Revival Main Hall.

State education officials have pressed for years to consolidate the school's two campuses at Staunton and Hampton. Last year, a study by an advisory commission recommended replacing the aging buildings in Staunton with a new VSDB facility.

The efforts will come when the state's Board of Education will decide whether to renovate the Staunton campus, or to build a new one in Fishersville or another location at a projected cost of $66 million. It has a July 31 deadline, although meeting that deadline is in doubt.

The board will report its findings to the governor and legislative committees in October, and the board may proceed with construction through a public-private partnership agreement if it receives a bid that does not exceed $61.5 million.

Two regional members of the state Board of Education did not return phone calls to explain the state's position.

But with the deadlines fast approaching, local officials and preservationists are worried. Strassler said the tour was designed to give the public a glimpse at what might be lost if the state closes the venerable facility.

"We're at the last chance here," he said.

VSDB's departure would leave Staunton with a second institutional campus to redevelop, joining the old Western State Hospital on Greenville Avenue. Strassler said that could be more than the Staunton real estate market can absorb.

Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton, said keeping the campus in Staunton makes sense fiscally, but he has been surprised by the community's commitment and connection to the school.

He said he hopes community support will have some bearing on the state's decision.

"The state Board of Education has been very impressed with the outpouring of support for the VSDB campus from the community of Staunton," he said.

If You Go:

* The free, one-hour tour starts at 11 a.m. Friday in front of VSDB's main building.
* Parking is available at the east end of Kalorama Street near the soccer fields.
* Handicapped parking and sign language interpreters are available.
* Tour will be canceled in case of rain.

Copyright ©2005 The News Leader. All rights reserved.