Save the Hall, Y’all

by Sep 28, 2023Art & Culture, Southport Oak Island

Up Your Arts’ campaign to revive Southport’s City Hall into a community arts center is coming into sharper focus.

A handful of people in 2019 looked at a beat-up public building from the 1800s in Southport and saw something special.

The building at 201 E. Moore Street near Southport’s waterfront had historic value for sure. After all, it was the Brunswick County Courthouse for roughly 100 years before it was Southport’s City Hall. Still, it took a lot of squinting to see the potential of more than just a feel-good preservation effort.

No one is squinting now.

It has taken longer than imagined, helped not at all by COVID delays, and will cost more than anticipated, but the campaign, dubbed “Save the Hall, Y’all,” is clearly pointed toward success. The people at Up Your Arts, the nonprofit group that supports performing and creative arts in the Southport area, are confident they have a strategy to preserve the historic building and create a state-of-the-art community arts center.

It’s not an exaggeration to say the building was in horrible shape, notes John Keiffer of Up Your Arts. Indeed, you still can’t enter without wearing a hazmat suit due to mold exacerbated by roof leaks. Asbestos and lead issues likely lurk, too. Part of the exterior has a tacked-on, 1960s box feel, which makes sense since that’s when the addition was added.

Still, pictures of both the exterior and interior show a classic structure of the 1800s, beautiful woodwork, tin ceiling details and numerous other features worth preserving.

Town Hall Southport NC

The visual renderings, including virtual video, of how to transform the old building are readily available at the website along with other resources that outline the project in detail. The pictures capture the plans better than words. But I will use words to hit some of the plan concepts.

The project will gut much of the building to its bones. A new, covered entryway will be added to what was the rear doorway. The first floor could house an indoor-outdoor coffee shop and gathering area, flexible exhibition space, meeting areas and possibly a kitchen capable of not only serving major events but also becoming a teaching center for culinary students. Small cubicles would be available for rent to local artisans, visible to visitors much like the Artspace in Raleigh and Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, which literally was a torpedo factory. Another goal that emerged is for the building to serve as a resource center for information about all local nonprofit agencies.

The second-floor centerpiece will be a room that can hold more than 250 people for events, depending on the setup, including a stage and state-of-the-art audio and video capabilities. The cash flow from events like weddings and receptions could support operating costs. The plans also show an outdoor, rooftop seating area with dramatic views of the Southport waterfront.

Outside, the front of the building facing the water will get a major landscaping makeover, with help from the Southport Gardening Club, that includes new plantings and a sculpture garden.

“Every time we do a presentation, someone comes up with a cool new idea, which is so important to people having a sense of community ownership,” Keiffer says. “But, at the same time, it complicates.”

With so many different ideas for the space, the buildout remains subject to change once the center has its own governing body, separate from Up Your Arts. The legal work required to set up a new nonprofit organization to raise the money and ultimately run the center is underway.

“We’ll give them a vision and let them run with it,” Keiffer says.

Part of that vision is the extensive design work already performed by Lisle Architecture & Design in Wilmington, a firm experienced in extensive rehab projects, including the transformation of an old bank building into the Southport Market downtown. Up Your Arts has committed to fund the architectural work.

Southport NC Town Hall

To get to this point, teams visited art centers across the Southeast, not only to collect ideas about what to include and how to do it but also the less-sexy but equally important task of figuring out legal structures and realistic operating projections. Should it be a public-private partnership, fully private or fully public? They visited everything from converted dairy barns in rural areas to full-fledged, government-run performing arts centers The Southport model involves a partnership agreement with the city. Several “Memoranda of Understanding” with Southport city government have authorized the feasibility studies and other activities to take the project to this point.

Fund-raising estimates have reached $3.5 million to open the building with the expectation that money will come from a combination of grants, major donors, individual donations, sponsorships and tax credits.

Is this the best use for the site? Land in downtown Southport is at a premium and quite valuable these days, but Keiffer says few nay-sayers have emerged to pitch offices, condos or some other potential uses. Something eventually must be done with the building after all.

“Having a thriving arts community has a huge impact on the local economy,” Keiffer says. “We feel the best case for the site is as a community and cultural arts center.”

As a testament to the power of the idea and the transparent process to date, Up Your Arts leaders say dozens of potential volunteers are already emerging to get involved with the new, yet-to-be-created entity.

“One of things I’ve noticed is the amount of respect and clout that we’ve garnered since 2019,” says Bob Gentile, Up Your Arts board chair. “People I talk to respect what we do, and they’re beginning to understand. We have a lot of support. The mayor went out of his way to say one way or another this will get done.”

Learn more about Up Your Arts and its Save the Hall, Y’all campaign:

Photography by Megan Deitz