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Lewis and Clark center, Albemarle EDA discuss loan repayment in closed meeting

One lender has forgiven the debt but the other has not and that leaves the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center and Albemarle County’s Economic Development Authority still working on a repayment plan for a long outstanding loan from Albemarle County.

Albemarle and Charlottesville each loaned the nonprofit center $130,000 in 2013 for construction of its facility at Darden Towe Park. Charlottesville voted to forgive the loan in 2015, conditioned on loan forgiveness by Albemarle, but the county has not forgiven the loan.

The center provides a hands-on education experience using the historic expedition as a gateway into history, exploration, transportation, arts, science, environment, and native cultures.

On Tuesday, Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center board members spoke with the county development authority’s board, mostly in a closed session, about the center’s financial situation.

Malou Stark, president of the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center Board, told the county board that the pandemic “dealt us a hefty blow” and the center opened again last fall with private, small group tours.

Center board member Sarah Gran said the board had a meeting to specifically address the loan repayment issue.

“I’m not going to go into the past. I was not on the board at that time,” she said. “There’s no reason to rehash that, because we want to move forward.”

Gran said they would discuss more details about the center’s finances in closed session because “there’s some information that the executive director and the board didn’t want to be shared.”

“I personally take it seriously that our debt be repaid to the best of the ability of the center and what we have available right now and what we can do in the future, but we also want to be realistic in what we’re able to do,” Gran said.

The authority board did not have a discussion or take a vote after the hour-plus closed session, where it also discussed two other projects.

Construction of the more than $1.75 million Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center project began in 2011. The center received a $800,000 Virginia Department of Transportation Enhancement Program grant, as well as private donations and additional grants for capital and operating expenses.

After a contractor had encountered rock during excavation for the road and parking areas for the center, the center board requested and was granted $130,000 loans from both the city and county which enabled the project to be finished.

In 2015, the center asked that the localities forgive the obligation to repay the loans. City Council voted on Nov. 16, 2015, to forgive the loan, which came from the city’s Strategic Investment Fund. The forgiveness, however, was conditioned on loan forgiveness by Albemarle.

Despite multiple requests from the Lewis & Clark Center and its board members, the county Board of Supervisors has not approved forgiveness of the loan. The Board of Supervisors gave the money to the county’s Economic Development Authority for the loan, and the Albemarle EDA is responsible for collecting the payments for the loan.

The center has paid the county $4,375 but has not made a payment since October 2017, Albemarle’s spokesperson Emily Kilroy said late last year. Since the original loan, there have been two amendments to try to set up a payment plan.

“That has not been acted on, so the loan is technically in default,” Kilroy said.

Chris Engel, Charlottesville’s economic development director, said late last year that the city’s loan remains unresolved, and it continues “to carry the loan as a note receivable until there is a resolution.”

No ongoing payments to the city have been required, he said.

Authority board members talked about the loan twice in closed meetings at the end of 2019. In January 2020, two authority board members volunteered to work on loan repayment discussions with the center board, but that was paused due to the pandemic.

Those two authority board members are no longer serving.

In January, Albemarle’s Economic Development Director Roger Johnson told the authority that it needed to take action before June 2023 or “lose legal standing,” and the EDA board decided to invite the center to its March meeting.

At the authority’s February meeting, authority board member David Shreve said that a repayment schedule for the loan had not been included in any of the center’s budget documents county board members had been given.

“One of the things we’re going to have to address is their perception going into this, which appears to be that they are still seeking forgiveness of the loan,” he said. “Our position is that’s a non-starter, so we’re going to have to get past that very quickly with them.”

The center has had woes aside from working on paying its debt. Stark said that the center was “overrun with people using our facilities [for] free, vandalism, bums, the whole nine yards.”

“We were fortunate enough last fall to get a gate installed,” she said. “That has definitely cut down tremendously on it.”

She did not say how the gate was funded.

Stark said she spent time “dealing with” someone on the center’s property who was “shooting up heroin right in front of” a mother and child. She said people had been sleeping in the full-size replica Keelboat at the center.

“Needless to say we have ended that little free camping site exhibit now,” Stark said.


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