By Linda Cicoira
There’s an uproar in Onancock and it’s not from the 500-person pavilion that is being erected behind the Historic Onancock School.
It’s from residents who say they haven’t received enough information about the goings-on at the 100-year-old structure that is rented from the town by a mostly volunteer group that has hosted an art center there for 16 years.
Those citizens are against the town spending tax money for the project and don’t want noise from loud music in their peaceful neighborhood. They voiced their opposition at an information meeting held Wednesday by the school friends’ group. A petition was submitted, but it was unclear how many signatures it held.
The school friends’ group obtained the necessary permits for the amphitheater and a received a vote of support last spring from the town council. They heard no complaints. The school is open five days a week and has had several art shows in the past month or so and hundreds more events over the years. All the rooms there are filled with artist studios and other businesses and has a waiting list for more who want in.
It’s a busy place and has also garnered lots of local support from those excited about the new pavilion and the possibilities of concerts and theater, a rental venue for weddings and events, and free children’s programs.
Money for school’s maintenance is needed. A new roof, new windows, retirement of the century-old heating system, mini-split air and heat units, improvements to the parking lot, are among the things on the wish list. A donation of $100,000 was recently received and will make a dent to fund these needs but another $300,000 to $400,000 is needed. A grant for $50,000 was also obtained and one for $150,000 is in the application stage. The town has been asked for $100,000 but the request, which was slated to be discussed by the town council on Dec. 19, was temporarily recalled when opposition was circulated in flyers across the town.
Haydon Rochester, a long-time volunteer at the school, said the pavilion will be enclosed at the rear of the structure and will have a sophisticated sound system that will keep from it being a nuisance to nearby residents. He said some noise is inevitable and reminded residents of football games that were once held at the school and the fire department carnivals that were held nearby.
Some residents didn’t want the pavilion to get in the way of sledding on the hill behind the school. The slope is a sought-after location on the flatlands of the Eastern Shore by children from as far away as Cape Charles. Rochester said the pavilion won’t prevent sled riding.
Other residents didn’t understand why neighbors weren’t advised of the construction by the town as they are when portions of houses are made into air-B&Bs and other rental uses.
The 14-acre site also includes a newly-equipped playground, a picnic area, a nature trail, a creek-side observation deck, a soccer field, a disc golf course, and is already a venue for wedding and other events.
Rochester said besides providing entertainment and creating revenue for the school, it is hoped that it will bring in customers for existing businesses and encourage more businesses to fill empty commercial buildings. He warned that without funds, the Onancock school could end up being abandoned like the former Central High School is. Or, he said, it could be sold to a developer.