For over a decade, many residents of the Smith Mountain Lake community have longed and sought a facility to use as a community center, to serve not only their immediate community, but nearby Roanoke and adjacent areas.
Now, a tangible opportunity to realize this vision could be at hand.
Run by a 12-member board of directors from the SML-area community, the non-profit organization Smith Mountain Lake Center, Inc., saw the need for a large venue that could accommodate more than 200 people to educational programs, entertainment and other events.
When the former 40,000 square foot Grand Home Furnishings store went up for sale in Westlake Corner, just off the Booker T. Washington Freeway in the Franklin County community of Hardy, SML Center saw “the opportunity of a lifetime”. Not only did the organization’s board of directors deem the venture feasible, but the location of the space was conveniently located within a convenient distance of Roanoke, the SML area, and the general area served by a community facility. .
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To this end, the SML Center is planning fundraising events and the launch of a fundraising campaign where donations can be received.
Lack of a spacious community center for local events such as trade shows, fundraising events, graduations, concerts, workforce development training, and space for higher education programs, club and business meeting areas, and myriad other similar uses have been keenly felt by many area residents, members of the organization said.
Although YMCAs, churches and small local sites in the area have generously shared their facilities for events with community organizations and businesses, the SML Center always knew that the area needed more space and a place the community and organization could call their own.
“We want this center to be for everyone, not just people who can afford to pay for tickets,” said Vicki Gardner, chair of the SML Center board of directors.
Gardner said the community center’s envisioned focus focuses on “the three Es”: events, education and entertainment.
“Education is needed everywhere, but we want to provide it for our families here, and there’s a great need for that. The venue is also for events,” Gardner said. “It could just be something… that will bring the community together and provide what they are looking for.”
A community center could even offer office space, Gardner added, as part of the thoughtful multiple and mixed-use uses.
In 2016, the SML Center conducted a feasibility study for the proposed project and sent out a survey to the Smith Mountain Lake community to gauge support and interest in the conceptual community facility. The results showed that 87% of survey participants were in favor of a community center, and using such a facility for educational programs was a top priority identified in participant feedback, Gardner said.
Ideas have been floated over the years – building a venue from scratch, keeping an eye out for existing structures to buy and transform – but despite big dreams and best efforts, the SML Center has yet to be able to realize his vision of acquiring the ideal collective equipment.
“It’s always been a struggle to find a place, and anyone who’s been involved in these special events has gone through the same struggle, just because there’s nothing really designed for that need,” said Jerry Hale, SML Center board member and active member of the SML community, where he moved in 2003.
Through his work as a contributing writer to local publications and his time volunteering in marketing services for local businesses and organizations, Hale said he’s seen firsthand the barriers caused by the lack of adequate capacity in a place, which made him a strong supporter of the community center project. His involvement in the coordination of charity concerts, for example, is an excellent example.
“Finding a suitable place to hold an event with a large audience was really very difficult, because there was simply nothing around. We stuck with church spaces that people made available, or we converted the Y gymnasium to put in a stage,” he says.
But the possibility of acquiring the former Grand Home Furnishings space could change all that.
The breadth of programming possibilities is huge, Hale said.
There are other practical benefits to securing this particular property, according to SML Center Board Vice Chairman John Emory.
Repurposing an existing building like the Grand Home Furnishings building is both green and economical, said Emory, who has a professional background in development. No ground disturbance would be required and the costs would be less than trying to build a site from scratch.
“It’s just a positive overall,” Emory said.
Many communities comparable to the Smith Mountain Lake area have community centers like the type of facility the SML Center seeks, Emory added. Establishing a central location for this lake area community across the county would add great value and service.
More information can be found at: smlcenter.org.
“I’m so excited about this,” Gardner said, hoping now will be the time when the long-awaited community center can become a reality. “I can’t think of a better place. The building is so ideal.