St. Marks mulls the future of its property at the SE corner of Spring and Bank.

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Previously at NA Confidential, we briefly considered the future of the bank building on the southeast corner of Spring and Bank Streets, a structure currently owned by St. Marks United Church of Christ.

As the church’s May newsletter indicated, the church had been seeking approval to demolish the structure, but wasn’t able to gain the requisite nod from the Historic Preservation Commission. The church then received an offer for the property, but as the following lengthy excerpt from the church’s June newsletter reveals, it simply isn’t as simple as selling a functional building to a willing buyer.

Sans editorial comment, here’s a valuable glimpse of what the members of the St. Marks congregation are discussing as they consider the church’s options.

The Visitor: The Monthly Newsletter of St. Marks United Church of Christ (June 2006).

A Suggested Course of Action to Consider — Alan Mason

Allan Hoffer has invited me to use the VISITOR to give my opinion on the Bank property, since he has given his last month. I apologize for the length, but there is a lot on my mind about the topic.

This is what Allan Hoffer and I know about our congregational meetings: No matter what opinion we have going into the meeting after we have talked about it and voted, the decision we make together is the right decision. At some point we will have a congregational meeting and will vote again on the best thing to do with the Bank property.

I feel we have not exhausted our possibilities for demolishing the building. I believe we will find a way to clear that site. I think we should continue to pursue demolishing the Bank Building. We are certainly not out of options.

With the Bank Building demolished could expand our handicapped parking. We may even want to put an all weather entrance on that side of the sanctuary to let our handicapped members and other people get out of their cars in cold, rainy or snowy weather. Perhaps that is a good spot for us to build a choir practice area or an area for brides to dress or all three.

There are lots of possibilities if we own that space; there are none if we don’t own it.

St. Marks has a glorious past, but if we are to have a future in New Albany we will need room to have a future.

Opportunities to buy adjoining properties in our area will only come our way once in a lifetime. At this time we own this property free and clear. Despite a temporary setback, we eventually can do with it as we please.

However, if we are going to put it on the market, let’s put it on the open market. Let’s let everybody make an offer and then let’s vote to accept that offer or not. Let’s remove the drive-thru overhang, survey the property we own, and make a deal to let the buyer rent parking space if that is what we want to do.

Whatever decision we make as a group becomes the directive for what we do next. Allan Hoffer and I believe in collective wisdom and open discussions and making decisions based on congregational votes. All of us are smarter than any one of us. I can support any decision that the congregation chooses.

However, to make the right decision all of us need to know all of the information. We need to know all that is in the contract for the Bank Building. Perhaps we are just looking at dollar signs and have not looked beyond that to see all that is in the bid. To make that clearer I have chosen a question and answer format, and have asked Allan to give a balancing perspective.

Remember this is still a fluid situation and many things could change between now and the Congregational Meeting.

Who has made this bid to buy the Bank Building?

Mason: The bid is not from an individual; it is from a holding company, an entity which can last many lifetimes. This means we may never again have an opportunity to control this area that is now our property. Once the holding company owns this, it is probably gone forever.

Hoffer: This is not surprising. Even individuals keep property for many years and will them to their children, for example. The attorneys contacted St. Marks when we were having difficulty with demolition. After our second denial of demolition permit, they made me an offer, news of which I felt compelled to bring to the congregation in both the Visitor and four Chapel meetings, especially since even the appeal process to pursue demolition would have required us to vote as to whether to list the bank for sale with a realtor. So the sale topic had to come up.

If they wanted to, could the holding company build a new building that would cover all of the space they buy from us?

Mason: Yes, they could. Remember a holding company is designed to last a long time. Several buildings could come and go in that time.

Hoffer: Some would say that is a good thing because something new would look better.

Will we ever have an opportunity to own this property again?

Mason: More than likely, no, and we probably couldn’t afford it if we had the chance.

Hoffer: I agree. Downtown churches nationally are not in growth modes. Many are struggling. St. Marks is holding steady, but hasn’t shown any indication of outgrowing our sanctuary. Both services are less than half full.

So the holding company wants to buy that corner of our property?

Mason: Yes, and also wants to own outright a strip of land that runs from our rear sidewalk to Bank Street about 30 feet in back of the Bank Building.

Hoffer: Yes. The line proposed by the law firm would be an east-west line parallel with the drive-thru island. A survey is being prepared to show this.

How much of our current space would be included with the lease and the land purchase?

Mason: For the next 20 years we would rent the whole parking lot, and the rear handicapped entrance to our church would belong to the holding company.

Hoffer: We retain all our normal church hour rights for regular painted spaces. The corner handicapped entrance drop-off area details can be worked out in the parking lease if we are worried about that. Remember also we have another ramped entrance at the inside “L” corner of the lot, which has a ramp which goes immediately under roof to protect against the elements.

What is this about handicapped parking?

Mason: The best area for people to let off wheel chair bound family members is right in that corner spot. It is used for this every Sunday because there are no steps involved.

If we grant them this parking lease, what does that mean?

Mason: It means we have to maintain it for parking for the next 20 years and will be paid 16 cents a day to keep it in repair.

Hoffer: We would maintain our lot anyway.

What are the advantages of this parking offer for the holding company?

Mason: They pay no taxes on the lot, are guaranteed 20 cheap parking spaces six days a week, have no liability, and get free maintenance. The holding company deals in buying property every day. They know there are no other buildings available in New Albany with space and off street parking right out the back door.

Hoffer: At the request of the Bank Committee, the law firm agreed to amend its offer to remove easement language which would have included free parking. Knowing it would probably be charged for parking over the years, the firm thought about reducing its sales price by $20,000 down to $230,000, to cover future parking expenses (which would have been totally legitimate), but ultimately figured paying the full price and paying a nominal lease fee was simpler for all concerned. In essence, the firm has pre-paid for 20 years of parking, with no guarantee that St. Marks won’t build on the parking lot, reducing available spaces. (See end of contract re: lease being modified or terminated for new construction.) St. Marks wins on this one.

What does St. Marks get?

Mason: We get the right to use our own parking lot on Sunday.

Hoffer: Plus we get $20,000 in 2006 value, rather than charging rent and letting it dribble in over the years as inflation chips away at it. Investing this money and/or using it for repairs and more efficient utilities will offset perceived losses to a significant degree.

If it snows during the week who pays to shovel the snow?

Mason: Good question, but I don’t know the answer. The contract does state that St. Marks will keep the parking lot in an “acceptable and safe condition.” That specifically includes re-paving if the holding company thinks the lot needs it.

Hoffer: Good question. It’s negotiable. Whoever works on the lease can address it.

We can still rent out space there for Harvest Homecoming, can’t we?

Mason: No, there is no provision for that in the contract. If they rent the lot for the year, all the parking spaces in that lot during Harvest Homecoming are theirs, not ours.

Hoffer: That’s true, they will have pre-paid. It’s also negotiable, so we can tell them how we have dealt with other of our prior parking lease customers and offer them other nearby spaces and ask for their flexibility.

So, have we been earning money on that parking area during Harvest Homecoming?

Mason: Yes, in the short time we have owned this area; we have made thousands of dollars renting out parking directly behind the booths. True, it is not a lot of money each year, but we could maintain the parking lot with just those four days of rental time.

Hoffer: This can likely be worked out. Again, they have prepaid $20,000, so we have made up for many future Harvest Homecomings already.

Is there more?

Mason: Yes, we have also earned money by renting week-day parking to the architectural firm across the street. During Harvest Homecoming they have used spaces in the Second Street lot.

But the holding company is going to pay us to park there aren’t they?

Mason: They will pay us 16 cents a day for all 20 parking spaces and we maintain the parking lot for them and their customers for the next 20 years.

Hoffer: They could have reduced their offer by $20,000, but didn’t. They have paid for non-guaranteed parking.

Will we still be able to walk between the buildings to get from front to back on that side?

Mason: That is not up to us, we will not own that sidewalk.

Hoffer: Common sense should prevail here. There won’t be any walking police nearby.

But handicapped members will still be able to enter the rear side door to the church won’t they?

Mason: No, we will not own the area that we now use for handicapped and van parking near that door. Nor will we own the exit from the parking nearest the building. Part of the understanding is that the holding company can add to the canopy and set up a fenced picnic area and garden area behind the Bank Building site.

Hoffer: They certainly can from the Handicapped spaces at the back of the sanctuary, and do it all under roof. And the closer door will likely not be a problem, but obtaining an easement in advance from the firm would be regarded as presumptuous.

But we have to sell the building don’t we? The Historical Commission will not let us tear it down.

Mason: We don’t know that yet. The Historical Commission does have an appeal process built into their rules and we are following that course. There are options beyond this appeal.

Hoffer: We don’t have to sell the building, no. That is why we vote. Oddly, one requirement in the appeal process to obtain a demolition permit is that we MUST list the property for public sale. Or, we can sell privately to any person or entity we wish and leave the various city boards and commissions out of the loop.

But this Historical Commission turned us down?

Mason: Yes, they would not let us put in handicapped spaces where the Bank now stands.

What happens to funds donated for the demolition if we decide to sell?

Hoffer and Mason: Those funds will be offered back to the original donors either to keep or re-designate . Or the donor could let the funds stay with sales proceeds to be used for other upcoming capital projects.

What about the Prayer Garden?

Mason and Hoffer: They also would not let us build a prayer garden for the community on that site. So, that is off the table.

But, we are going to make an appeal?

Mason: Yes, and it may involve inviting church members to join the Bank Committee at this meeting for a show of support.

Hoffer: Yes, but only if the congregation votes to continue the appeal. It involves listing the bank with a realtor, which we previously voted down. Plus, the motion to be presented at the congregational meeting will be to accept the current offer. If you want to appeal, you should vote “No” on the offer and wait for an appeal motion to be made afterwards.

What do you suggest we do?

Mason: I suggest we follow the recommendations of the Bank Committee and the Trustees.

Hoffer: I suggest you decide after you read the offer, after you pray about the matter, after you ask more questions, and after you find out about new information to come in re: appraisal, about upcoming sanctuary and Education Building repair needs, etc. At that point, vote your heart and mind on what would be best for St. Marks.

What are those suggestions?

Mason: We remove the roof of the drive-thru from the Bank, survey a line about five feet in back of the Bank Building that includes an easement that will let us use our wheelchair ramp we have there and put the building for sale on the open market as part of the appeal process.

Hoffer: The upcoming vote will be one of the few times you have total control on this situation. If you vote to sell, we don’t have to take further direction from city agencies, and we can begin to plan for necessary repairs and more efficient utility replacements which will cost in the short term, but save thousands of dollars in the long term. This is a congregation matter and folks will disagree. That’s OK. You don’t have to feel pressured by any particular group, including me or Bank Committee or Council. Use your own good sense.

Why do the Trustees suggest removing the drive-thru roof?

Mason: It is part of the building. If we include that area in the sale, we lose an exit from our lot, the wheel chair entrance, the closest handicapped parking spot and a chance to reconfigure that area to provide more parking.

Hoffer: It is presently part of the existing offer. If we vote down the offer, then it can come down for simplicity’s sake.

So the parking lot is not for sale?

Mason: That is correct. We offer only the Bank Building for sale.

Hoffer: Agreed, after we decide on the current offer. At the moment, the law firm actually wants the drive-thru area.

So what would we do next?

Mason: When the 90 days or so ends, as a congregation we examine any and all offers and decide. That should complete our grounds for appeal and the demolition should also be an option. Everything would be on the table. We could choose to demolish, hold still, or sell the Bank Building.

Hoffer: We keep gathering facts, then we vote. We will send out a church-wide mailing several weeks in advance of the meeting. At that time you will see the survey and know the appraisal amount, which may aid your decision.

Is there any other danger?

Mason: Yes, if the Congregation votes to sell the building, all bargaining on our part is probably done. The thing to remember with contracts is that everything must be in writing. Oral understandings don’t count and are often forgotten about over time. Selling the building with conditions that are not in the contract will be a difficult situation for the holding company and for St. Marks. It could slow the process considerably and involve more Congregational Meetings.

Hoffer: Delay is a danger because a good offer could walk away. Or, after we try to appeal and can’t get any good offers, we go back to the law firm, who will then have all sorts of bargaining advantage on us. I doubt we’d see $250,000 again.

Hoffer and Mason: A biggest danger is if we let this matter divide us as a church. There is too much negative energy being expended in being upset with various groups, boards, and individuals. Allan Hoffer and Alan Mason both would have you remember the example set by Herb Garrison, who a year ago voiced his objection to the building of the Chancel extension. Herb was outvoted on the issue, but showed up every day the next week to work on building a project he himself had voted against. St. Marks could use about 300 church members with hearts like Herb’s. We think we will find those folks. They sit among us every week.

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