Local News

November 24, 2013

Saving the Emery Center

Dalton’s first school for black students, now an African-American heritage center, could be shuttered

If the Emery Center doesn’t raise at least $60,000 by the end of the year it will most likely have to close its doors.

“I don’t know what happens if we close,” said Curtis Rivers, director of the center which promotes multicultural awareness and local heritage. “I don’t want to think about it. A lot of people have entrusted me and the board members with memorabilia. I’d rather display it and be proud of it.”

Emery Center volunteers approached officials with the city of Dalton recently to ask for help in making much needed repairs to the building. The center leases the building from the city. It was after that request that the city had the building inspected, Rivers said. The lease agreement signed in 2003 states the Emery Center is responsible for the upkeep on the building.

“At the time we had no knowledge of the extent of the upkeep on this building,” Rivers said.

 All tenants of buildings belonging to the city, including the freight depot (which houses the Dalton Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Downtown Dalton Development Authority) and the old post office (which houses The Carpet & Rug Institute and The Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce), are responsible for their own repairs and maintenance, said City Administrator Ty Ross.

“There is a general concern based on the safety of the building,” Ross said. “We passed along the concerns. Under the terms of the lease things are supposed to be taken care of. They’re not being taken care of. It’s never been the intent to create a crisis for the Emery Center. The intent was to create an opportunity and hopefully a fundraising goal to bring the building back up to snuff and make it a quality experience. We want to be good partners.”

The center needs a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, which is estimated to cost $60,000. The center also needs to replace sections of the roof, estimated to cost $20,000; the gutters, $1,200; and the fire alarm system needs repairs and an upgrade.

“We want to encourage the Emery Center and its fundraising efforts,” Ross said. “I’ve attended the board meetings and offered support in terms of planning and marketing. I helped them draft a letter soliciting support. ... The whole situation is really a litmus test whether or not the community is willing to support the Emery Center. It’s a challenging situation, but hopefully the community will rise to the challenge.”

The center has begun a campaign to raise money through writing letters and making phone calls soliciting donations. But Rivers said he fears with the holidays coming and property taxes being due this time of year, people just don’t have the money to raise the amount required to keep the center open.

“We need more time,” he said. “We have items prioritized. We need gutters. We have the money to do that but it’s minor.”

Rivers said the new HVAC system is top priority. The building has inadequate heating, which has caused water lines to freeze and burst more than once in the last 10 years the organization has occupied the former Emery Street School building. The building was constructed in 1924 and served as the only black school in the community before integration in the 1960s.

The approximately 14,000-square-foot building has three systems, but only the one in the auditorium works currently. The ceiling was dropped in on the building during renovations at some point in its history leaving a sprinkler system in the attic.

“No heat gets to them,” said Rivers, a 1958 graduate of the Emery Street School. “I turn on the heat and remove ceiling tiles so heat can get into the attic. We use small space heaters to warm rooms before tour groups arrive.”

The center’s annual budget is approximately $13,000 to $14,000, Rivers said. There’s no paid staff, only volunteers. The center’s revenue comes from tour groups, donations and a few small grants.

“Every time we get money we have to spend it on repairs,” he said.

Deborah Macon, who attended Emery Street School in first through eighth grades, said she would hate to see the center close.

“I think the center, with enough funding, could be a good epicenter for the community,” said Macon, who also serves on the Emery Center’s board of directors. “It has not only historical value but also cultural value. It’s multicultural, which you don’t have a lot of institutions here in Dalton being multicultural.”

If the center closes, Macon believes there will be a void in the community. The center has displays, artifacts, articles, photos and many other items detailing several aspects of history including slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a military room and information on integration. The information covers national history, but also history as it relates to Dalton.

“We might not all have had the same kind of experiences, but we will always learn from other people’s experiences and cultural background,” she said. “So I think it would leave a void in town if it didn’t exist anymore.”

Board members often apply for grants for the center, but the ones they receive are in small amounts. The center doesn’t have a large enough budget to meet the percentage match requirement on many of the larger grants, Rivers said.

So the center must rely largely on donations.

“If we don’t preserve our history locally, then who else will do it?” Macon asked. “We can’t expect the state and federal government to do everything.”

Dalton officials recently gave the OK to tear down the old City Park School building because it was dilapidated beyond repair.

“I would hate to see us lose all these historic buildings,” Macon said. “Historic buildings need to be renovated and used for something cultural in the community. I think that’s a void in Dalton. We don’t do that.”

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