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Wednesday, June 9,2010

Big box revival

Church repurposes Lansing’s biggest eyesore, despite city’s objections

by Neal McNamara

 

Standing in what was once the butcher section of the former Farmer Jack supermarket on South Cedar Street, the Rev. Louis Dixon was about 25 yards away from a team of steelworkers installing a giant girder across the ceiling. In such a huge, empty space, the sparks from their blowtorch and the crackling of steel being cut seemed miles away.

Dixon didn’t seem to notice. He pointed to one corner, the old bakery, across thousands of feet of gray floor tile, where there would be a “fellowship” area. Then he pointed to where the checkout used to be, which would be the new front entrance. The old pharmacy section, he said, would become a place for a children’s ministry and daycare.


“The building needs a lot of TLC,” he said. “We’re going to beautify it.”


Dixon is the head of Abundant Grace Faith Church, which right now operates out of a storefront at the Logan Square plaza on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. In one year, Dixon hopes the new church will be ready for his growing flock.


The old Farmer Jack is located just north of Miller Road in Lansing. The fašade is covered in weather-beaten plywood and weeds have found every possible way to grow in the football field-sized parking lot; it is a dead weight in an already struggling part of town.


Dixon came to the building after seeing it many times driving to his bank in Holt.


“I thought, ‘Lord, that would make a good church for someone,’” he said.


One day, he stopped and walked around. After some prayer, consulting with other pastors at Abundant Faith, letting them see the building, the building was bought. In December, the church bought the property for $700,000, a deep discount from the $4.8 million sticker price. The Farmer Jack chain closed and left the building empty in 2007; before Farmer Jack, it was a Builder’s Square, which now, after bankruptcy, only exists online. A b u n d a n t Grace had taken up a building fund collection, which had been ongoing for more than a year before the building was purchased. The church paid all at once in cash.


But the whole thing might not have happened at all. Susan Stachowiak, Lansing’s zoning administrator, recommended denial of Abundant Grace’s application for a special permit to operate the church.


“The proposed church will not represent an improvement to the use or character of the property or the surrounding area,” she wrote. “Cedar Street is a principal arterial that is designed to carry a high volume of traffic, which is why the properties that front along S. Cedar are zoned and master planned for commercial land use. The church will result in a hole of little activity, with a great deal of parking, within an otherwise active commercial area.”


Dixon said that he and other church members went before the Planning Board in April and testified why they should get the special permit. At first, the church did not have enough votes because board members wanted to see a business move into the building.


“As we grow — and we will — we know a lot of the surrounding businesses will benefit,” Dixon said. The church’s neighbors include a quick lube joint and a strip mall that includes, among other things, a psychic and an adult video shop. Dixon does not necessarily like them, but he pledges the church won’t interfere.


Churches repurposing big box stores is not new. A church in Sterling Heights in the Detroit area is in an old Farmer Jack, and Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids moved into an abandoned mall. Celebrivangelist Joel Osteen runs his Lakewood Church out of the Compaq Center, where the Houston Astros once played.


Lee Jager, Mars Hill’s communications director, said that the mall was offered to the church at a low cost. Before the mall, Mars Hill was in a former school. The congregation grew and the church needed a new home.


“It’s never been a discussion to build something,” Jager said. “It hasn’t been in our nature to think that way.”


Dixon said Abundant Faith has about 230 congregants. The new location would hold 500 with room for up to 1,200 — if it gets that high, the church will have to buy a $50,000 traffic light. In the Lansing area, 1,200 congregants is a lot, but not the most. According to the Hartford Seminary, which collects data on mega churches, the area’s biggest is Mount Hope Church — the Church of the Flags — in Delta Township with over 4,000 congregants, followed by Trinity Church in Lansing with 3,200 and Riverview Church in Holt with 2,000. The largest church in Michigan is Kensington Community Church in Troy with close to 12,000.


Dixon is ambivalent about the term “mega church.” The more people to preach to, he says, the better. But some gaudy televangelists have given mega churches a strange reputation. Dixon wants Abundant Grace to be a welcoming “non-traditional, family-friendly” church. He wants to be a positive force in Lansing and bring in inspirational speakers like former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy. In good weather, he wants to barbecue and evangelize in the massive parking lot.


Right now, the church is a blank slate. All that remains of Farmer Jack is a few signs and stains on the floor from where the shelves once stood. The steelworkers were removing a few of the giant polls that hold up the roof because they are in the middle of what will eventually be the pulpit. Dixon has a vision, though. In his mind, he has all 6.2 million square inches (10.3 acres, including parking) of the space allotted for something. Soon enough, the boards will come off the fašade. On Saturday, Dixon and a group of volunteers started de-weeding the parking lot.


“I was overwhelmed by the sight of it,” he said, back at butcher station, of when he first set foot in the supermarket’s husk. “It’s a lot; but it gives us all the necessary space.

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