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April 1, 2007
Museum's past, present, future celebrated at gala

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, April 1, 2007

By MICKEY POWELL AND GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writers

A dream come true. The result of seeds planted years ago. A catalyst for the area's rebirth.

Those were typical of the reactions to the new Virginia Museum of Natural History facility from some of the 500 people attending a sold-out gala there Friday night.

The evening was a celebration of the near-completion of the $28 million facility that has been years in the making. Guests in tuxedoes, ballgowns and cocktail dresses mingled on the front patio, looking for familiar names etched in the tribute bricks below their feet and admiring the modern design of the building.

Inside, tables were set up in the Great Hall and two other rooms. They had elaborate, tall floral centerpieces and formal place settings for the pheasant dinner.

The evening was short on formalities. Gov. Tim Kaine, 5th District U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode, state Sen. Roscoe Reynolds and Dels. Ward Armstrong, Robert Hurt and Danny Marshall all spoke briefly. They all congratulated the museum and those who had worked to make the new building a reality, and stressed its importance to Martinsville, Henry County and all of Southside.

Debbie Lewis, president of the VMNH Foundation, noted that the organization has raised $3.3 million toward its $5 million goal to support the museum. She added that she is confident the goal will be reached.

Throughout the party, guests talked about how impressed they were with the new building and how hard so many people had worked to make it a reality.

Former Gov. Gerald Baliles, state Sen. Charles Hawkins and VMNH board member Bud Oakey all remembered how the museum arrived at this weekend's opening.

"It is the culmination of seeds planted years ago," said Hawkins, R-Chatham.

If the area wanted to be a "major player" in the state, it needed a world-class museum and educational facilities, he said. The development of the museum, New College Institute in Martinsville and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville are steps in that direction, he added.

"This is the first piece in a greater puzzle," he said. As that puzzle is completed, "once again we will take our rightful place as an economic driver in the commonwealth."

The museum began as a private facility, founded by Noel Boaz, formerly of Martinsville. It became a state agency during Baliles' administration.

Friday, Baliles, a Patrick County native, recalled how he appointed board members who could help the museum grow and get its story out, and how any efforts to move the facility to more populous regions were doomed when Elizabeth Haskell of Martinsville became state secretary of natural resources under Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

Looking around the new building, Baliles said, "It took a long time, too long. But it's here and I'm delighted."

Oakey is a former chairman of the museum's board who formerly was a lobbyist for the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce and the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce. He recalled when Larry Aydlett, former director of the local chamber, and Tom Harned, then-Martinsville community development director, took him to Wilson Park behind the current museum and showed him the site's potential.

But first, the old Martinsville General Hospital had to be torn down and the site cleared to make way for the museum, they said. It was his job to raise the money to make that happen, Oakey said, and he did.

He also recalled the project's support among many in the General Assembly and the state's governors. Among the Southside legislators, "there was no R and D," he said, referring to Republicans and Democrats. All were united behind getting the new museum built, he said.

"I maintained for years that the research (being done at the museum) was world-class but we were not telling anybody. ... The museum was recognized all around America. Only Virginia didn't know about it," he said.

Now, with the new building and with VMNH Executive Director Tim Gette telling its story, that has changed, he said.

Haskell called Friday's gala a "world-class event for a world-class museum," adding that the facility has "come from a little private endeavor in an old schoolhouse to where we are today."

"It's part of several exciting initiatives happening in Martinsville," including the New College Institute, Piedmont Arts Association and The Harvest Foundation-funded fieldhouse and soccer complex, she said.

"It makes a critical mass of exciting ventures that show we're taking off in a new direction," Haskell said, adding that she expects the museum to attract people from throughout Virginia as well as surrounding states.

Among the other reactions of some of those at the gala to the new museum were:

"Hal Prillaman, businessman who served for years on local economic development boards: "For me, it's the biggest thing to happen to Martinsville since the Martinsville Speedway." It is a world-class facility that will attract people from all over the world.

"Hurt: "It's wonderful to see it all come together," and is important for education as well as tourism. In his six years in the House of Delegates he never thought the new museum would not be built. "My colleagues could see the big picture."

"James D. "Nubby" Coleman, president of Rives S. Brown Real Estate: "Fifty and 100 years from now people will look back at this night" as the start of something great for the area.

"Eliza Severt, former Martinsville City Council member: "It's spectacular. It's the realization of a dream for Martinsville" and should be a "spark plug" for the area's rebound.

"Betsy Cole of Martinsville, who served 10 years on the museum board and now is on its advisory board: "This is one of Martinsville's proudest moments." A lot of people worked to make it happen and never gave up on the dream.

"Joe DeVault of Iriswood District, retired educator: "It's tremendous for the city of Martinsville and Henry County. It's going to be the forerunner of good things to happen."

"Vince Stone of Martinsville, a museum board member: "It's gorgeous" and Gette deserves credit for seeing the construction through.

"Former Miss Virginia Nancy Redd, who now lives in Los Angeles. "It's better than LA because it's our hometown."

"Gwen Sowden of Martinsville: The new museum will draw people, and also will benefit Piedmont Arts Association, a block away on Starling Avenue. She volunteers at both.

"Martha Cooper of Martinsville: "It's fabulous. People who haven't been here cannot believe it's Martinsville."

"Ervin Jordan of Charlottesville, a University of Virginia professor who is a member and former chairman of the museum's board: "The Commonwealth of Virginia should be proud" of the new building. When he first looked around inside, he recalled, "it was breathtaking. It was much better than what I had expected to see." He added that the state used Virginians' tax money wisely in constructing the building.

"Mary Sue Terry of Patrick County, former delegate and Virginia attorney general: "This facility will be a magnet for this community." She noted the tradition of local support for the museum and said, "The people of Martinsville-Henry County have been the load-bearers for this facility and will continue to be."

"CeCe Johnson of Martinsville: "It's awesome ... surreal for Martinsville. ... I think it will be a drawing card" for the area.

"Jim Johnson, chairman of the Martinsville School Board: "I'd rather see it (the new building) here than in Richmond or Roanoke." He said there are "so many things that kids can learn from this museum," and he thinks it will help boost tourism in the area.

"Ron Ferrill, Martinsville city councilman: "This is what Martinsville is all about," and shows what can be done when people pull together. He noted that Gette has said the museum could attract retired scientists who could move to the area and use the facility, boosting its research and helping build the community. "It can't do anything but good" for the area.

"Leanna Blevins, associate director of the New College Institute: The building "looks very high-tech. It makes me feel like I'm in a more urban area" of the state. She added that "we are so blessed to have something of this magnitude in our backyard. What's next?"

"Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.: "What's not to like" about the building? "It will be a tremendous destination. I would think it will draw people from a long way" off from Martinsville.

"Eric Monday, Martinsville city attorney: "I think it's spectacular." He said that he is "no big fan of modern architecture," but he especially likes the building's large glass atrium.

"Barry Dorsey, director of the New College Institute: "It's a world-class facility." He said that school students will visit the museum on field trips, tell their parents about it, and then the children and their parents will visit together on weekends.

"Suzanne Lacy of Martinsville, a supporter of the museum since it opened in 1985: The new museum is "unbelievable," and will show people that this area is moving from a mill town to an intellectual area, she said. The late House Speaker A.L. Philpott, who supported the museum when others wanted it located elsewhere, "is the reason it's here. If it was not a state museum it wouldn't be here," Lacy said. "Now it's the bandwagon to jump on."