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Award-winning culture center director resigns: John Hightower, executive director of the Downing-Gross center, is leaving his $100,000 post.
[November 21, 2008]

Award-winning culture center director resigns: John Hightower, executive director of the Downing-Gross center, is leaving his $100,000 post.

(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 21---- John B. Hightower, the executive director of the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in southeast Newport News, will leave his post effective Dec. 15, Hightower and city officials confirmed Thursday.

The city last December signed a two-year contract with Hightower, 75, to raise money for the center.

He is a former president and chief executive officer of The Mariners' Museum, serving from 1993 to 2006. The city agreed to pay him $100,000 annually for his services as the center's executive director and fundraiser.

According to the contract, Hightower's performance was to be reviewed after the first year, he said.

After a recent review, City Manager Randy Hildebrandt last Thursday told Hightower his contract would not get extended, Hightower said.

"The fiscal crisis certainly did affect bringing the arrangement to a close of the first year," he said.

But Hightower and City Manager Randy Hildebrandt give slightly different accounts of what happened.

Hildebrandt said the city did not terminate Hightower's contract because of the city's fiscal constraints, but Hightower resigned.

"He sent me a letter, saying that he was terminating the contract," Hildebrandt said. "And the city accepted his letter. This is my comment."

Hightower's letter of resignation was dated Nov. 14, Hildebrandt said.

"Essentially they told me that my contract will not be renewed," Hightower said. "And I volunteered to submit a letter of resignation. I did what I knew I had to do."

Received alli award

Newport News, like other localities elsewhere, is struggling with revenue shortfalls and trying to avoid laying off city employees. The city has implemented a hiring freeze since February.

At The Mariners' Museum, Hightower was instrumental in raising $12 million for the Mariners' International Small Craft Center, its permanent galleries and library improvements.

Most recently, he worked on the $30 million USS Monitor Center and Conservation Laboratory.

The Downing-Gross facility was haunted by numerous construction mishaps and its opening postponed several times until last month.

"There were a lot of pieces that were not in place and were distracting and not as easily resolved," Hightower said.

Hightower said "the irony of it all" was that he just two Sundays ago received the Alli award by the Cultural Alliance of Greater Hampton Roads, an award that honors art and culture industry activists in the region.

The award recognized Hightower for "his accomplishment in the creation and construction of the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center" according to the alliance.

"It's just very disheartening because he could have really made an impact with the facility in the community," said Councilwoman Tina Vick, who represents the south district with Vice-Mayor Joe Whitaker on City Council.

Vick said she will have a meeting with Hildebrandt Monday to find out what exactly happened last week.

"I am very sad that it has come to this," she said.

Hightower's leaving is casting an air of uncertainty over the future of the 50,000-square-foot Cultural Arts Center, which cost the city roughly $11.2 million.

"We are working on deciding how to manage the facility," Hildebrandt said.

"We haven't made any decisions on how we are going to do that."

Exhibition postponed

A quilt exhibition, costing about $50,000 for which Hightower was supposed to raise money, has been postponed indefinitely, Hightower said.

Hightower said he felt terrible about what happened last Thursday.

"It's just a marvelous facility," he said.

"It would have attracted an audience and students who would have not treated it like a community center, but a first-class professional arts center."

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