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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

LSCO ready to transform historic church for future


Last updated 2/13/2024 at 10:05pm

Tad McKee and Walter Riedel from the Stark Foundation, along with LSCO President Dr. Tom Johnson and Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the college's new student success center in the 1913 downtown Baptist Church. The Stark Foundation bought the building and saved the inside from hurricane flood mold and donated it to the college.

Lamar State College Orange and the Stark Foundation are assuring local residents preserve the past while preparing for the future.

On Tuesday, under a clear crystal blue sky, the local college had a groundbreaking ceremony outside the old First Baptist Church building on Green Avenue in downtown Orange. "We want to preserve this beautiful building, said LSCO President Dr. Tom Johnson.

PDG Architects of Houston has designed a modern style interior to serve as the new Student Success Center. G&G Enterprises, a second-generation Orange-based company, is the contractor. Natasha Garrett, CEO of the company, talked about being part of a community and saving history.

Johnson said the college is drawing many students who are the first generation of their families to attend college. The new center will be a place to welcome them and help them with advancing their education. He said he was the first from his family to go to college.

"They're a little nervous. I know I was," he said about people coming to get information. He pointed out that the new LSCO Academic Building under construction is across the street from the church.

The Stark Foundation had bought and rescued the moldy building after the congregation of First Baptist Church abandoned it and moved outside the city when Hurricane Ike flooded it in September 2008.

Johnson thanked Stark Foundation President and CEO Tad McKee, along with Walter Riedel, retired president and CEO, for the donation and their support to the college. He said the foundation gives many scholarships each year to LSCO.

He also thanked State District 21 Representative Dade Phelan, for helping to get the Texas Legislature to appropriate $6 million for the new center. Phelan not only represents Orange County in the state legislature, but he is serving his second term as speaker of the house, one of the most influential positions in state government.

Phelan also has helped LSCO get the legislature to cut tuition by half, which has increased enrollment, Dr. Johnson said. The college is now gaining a reputation of training people to work in local industries in different job fields.

Phelan praised LSCO for getting new generations to higher learning. "You are only as strong as your next generation," he said.

The speaker also said when he first ran for state representative, his goal was to work to increase the population of Southeast Texas. He said the region is now growing.

Last week, he was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a the new local hospital and medical center. The new LSCO project is "just another week in Orange County," he said.

McKee, Riedel, and Phelan donned hard hats and helped move the ceremonial shovel of sand during the event. Dr. Johnson wore a green satin bow tie to represent the LSCO colors of orange and green. An alligator figurine, for the Gators mascot, was in front of the shovelers.

The red brick church, designed in the classic Greek revival style, has a silver metal dome and is a landmark. It was dedicated in 1913. Thirteen years ago, the church congregation offered to sell the city the block for a new fire station. A number of people protested the idea of tearing down the brick sanctuary with one now-deceased longtime member saying the church was built with money raised by members and not donated by a millionaire's wife.

McKee said the church had removed most of everything inside the building and it was so full of mold that it had to be gutted. Stained glass windows still remain, though, and will add colored sunrays to the new center.

Also attending the ceremony were presidents of the three other Lamar colleges--Lamar University, Lamar Institute of Technology, and Lamar State College Port Arthur. The schools are under the Texas State University System.


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