Redevelopment plan includes historic Lebanon church damaged by fire

A 150-year-old church, badly damaged by a fire just before Christmas 2017, would be rebuilt at a different location as part of a proposed community development in Lebanon.

The new Bethel African American Methodist Church could be under construction later this year a few blocks away from its historic location, still on Cherry Street but near Pleasant Square Park, according to church officials.

The community development plan, scheduled for discussion during a Lebanon City Council work session, also includes a community center, business incubator and homes, all on 2.3 acres just north of the historic downtown district.

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Church leaders said they were already planning for expansion before the church, dedicated in 1861, burned on Dec. 13, 2017, after members served the weekly community meal.

“We realized we would have to look outside the walls of our small church,” Raye Kimberlin said last week.

After the devastating fire, “We just felt God was leading us into our future,” Kimberlin added.

Last December, the church held a decommissioning ceremony acknowledging the fire had left the property best suited for sale, Kimberlin said.

“To move our mission forward, we had to say goodbye,” she said.

Instead of restoring or starting over at 111 N. Cherry, in the parking lot behind the Lebanon United Methodist Church, Bethel A.M.E. would rebuild on Cherry Street to the north across Warren Street, on one of the city-owned lots within the proposed 2.3-acre redevelopment area.

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Church leaders are working with Brown and Bills Architects, lawyer Alan Schaeffer, HER Realtors and Scott Norris, a faith-based home rehabilitation specialist, according to their proposal. The church has also identified four home builders, according to Karen Schaeffer, church pastor.

The proposal was made in response to a request for qualifications to redevelop the area identified for community development during the city's ThinkDowntown planning process.

On Tuesday, Bethel representatives are expected to meet for the second time in a work session with city council and staff.

“The ball’s in the development team’s court,” City Manager Scott Brunka said.

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Brunka said Law Director Mark Yurick, who could not be reached for comment, was expected to brief the council on legal questions about signing a development agreement with the church.

Kimberlin said a church lawyer was forming Pleasant Square LLC to answer the questions.

The plan calls for the church to be built this year, a multi-purpose center and business incubator in a second phase, and more owner-occupied homes in the final phase.

The development was proposed in response to requests for qualifications for this area and at 511 N. Broadway.

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Developer Jim Cohen’s plan for a mix of restaurants and upscale multi-family housing at 511 has been approved, a short walk from Pleasant Square, near the historic Berry School.

Pleasant Square is designed to help the city and allow the church to reopen at a different location with additional community development, Kimberlin said.

“Ultimately, we want to help the city achieve their goals,” Kimberlin said.

Church leaders are waiting to see what comes of their proposal before deciding whether to sell the former church location, Kimberlin said.

Meanwhile, the church is located in an office suite at 550 Mound Ct. in Lebanon.

“There are still a lot of decisions to be made,” Schaeffer said.

The council is to discuss the project during a work session in the 1st floor conference room beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Lebanon City Hall, 50 S. Broadway in Lebanon.

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