City to seek grant funds for Simms Center preservation, more sidewalks and Northend Greenway 

The Simms Center’s windows could get restored if the city receives a grant. (Photo courtesy of Harrisonburg City)

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

The Harrisonburg City Council gave city officials the go-ahead Tuesday to apply for $165,000 in federal grant money to fund repairs at the Lucy F. Simms Center. 

If awarded, the funds would allow the city to perform long-needed maintenance at the Simms Center, removing rust damage from window sills and lintels, as well as installing storm windows to prevent future damage to the almost 90-year-old building. The money would come from the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Grant Program (AACR), which awards competitive grants to preserve historic sites related to the struggle of African Americans for civil rights.

Additional repairs include repainting the window sills, caulking cracks and reglazing the site’s windows. 

“The project will not remove, replace, or alter components of the Simms Center but will protect and preserve the building so it will serve as a valuable asset for generations to come,” said Luke Morgan, Harrisonburg’s grants and programs analyst, in a presentation Tuesday to the city council. 

Congress appropriated $24 million for the AARC grant program earlier this year, intending to preserve sites listed, or determined eligible, for the National Register of Historic Places or as a National Historic Landmark. 

The Simms Center, named for Harrisonburg African American educator Lucy F. Simms, was built in 1934, where Black students in the area were taught until public schools were integrated following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Plessy v. Ferguson with Brown v. Board of Education. The Simms School was closed in 1965 and was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 2003 and the National Register of Historic Places the following year. 

It now operates as a community center and received a Virginia Historic Highway Marker in 2021. City Council voted unanimously to support the grant application, with council member Monica Robinson reminiscing fondly on her family’s history with the Simms Center. 

“Entering [the Simms Center] not only brings back memories for my family, but for others who shared memories there when we went to Simms as a recreation center,” Robinson said. “This means the world to me. This made my evening.”

Mayor Deanna Reed compared the Simms Center to the Jefferson School of African American Heritage in Charlottesville. 

“The goal that I have is that Simms can be preserved the same way as the Jefferson School,” Reed said. “We can do it.”

The AACR grant application is due Oct. 10, with award announcements expected in April 2024. 

The Northend Greenway, seen her under construction in 2019, could get an extension if the city receives grant funding. (File photo)

Grants also sought for Greenway and sidewalks

The city council also voted to support applications for three other grants that would fund projects to extend walkways in Harrisonburg.

Thomas Hartman, Harrisonburg’s director of public works, presented the plan to request funds through the Transportation Alternatives Program from the Virginia Department of Transportation. The grants would cover two projects as well as a new position in Harrisonburg Public Works. 

The first project would be a 500-foot extension of the Northend Greenway to Virginia Avenue along Mt. Clinton Pike, which would fill a gap over the train tracks that intersect with the highway. The extension is estimated to cost $2 million, of which the city would cover $500,000. 

“This is kind of the missing link in the Greenway project,” Hartman said. 

A second grant would cover the construction of sidewalks in the neighborhoods surrounding Waterman Elementary School and Keister Elementary School as part of the city’s proposed Safe Routes to School Program, aimed at providing more sidewalks on which students can walk to school. The combined cost is estimated at around $500,000, with the city chipping in 20% in matching funds.

A third grant would fund a full-time coordinator for the Safe Routes to School Program over two years. Council member Dany Fleming endorsed the necessity of these projects in Harrisonburg.

“Without a doubt, these are significant safety improvements for a community that does a lot of biking,” Fleming said.

Hartman said his department plans to submit the applications to VDOT next week.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting:

  • The council considered several ordinance changes related to water and sewer billing, including a discussion of how the city’s usage rates could be adjusted to help financially vulnerable residents and those trying to conserve water. The item was tabled for a future meeting. 
  • Harrisonburg city employees will get some extra time off in the coming months as the council voted to recognize Election Day as a city holiday and reduce the city work day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to be a half-day. The resolution also included Indigenous People’s Day in October as a city holiday starting next year. 

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