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D.C. Church, Lured by Development, Ended Up With `Short End of the Stick’

c. 2006 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ When the Rev. Amy Butler arrived at Calvary Baptist Church three years ago, she inherited not only a church that had dwindled from 5,000 parishioners to about 70 on a Sunday, but also a real estate headache. Located in the heart of the city’s revitalized Chinatown neighborhood, Calvary […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ When the Rev. Amy Butler arrived at Calvary Baptist Church three years ago, she inherited not only a church that had dwindled from 5,000 parishioners to about 70 on a Sunday, but also a real estate headache.

Located in the heart of the city’s revitalized Chinatown neighborhood, Calvary owned four aging buildings and a parking lot that were under-utilized and coveted by developers.

Calvary’s story shows how churches that are promised the sky often enter development deals uninformed and unaware of the true costs, and in Butler’s words end up with “the short end of the stick.”

Calvary first entered the development game in the late 1980s when the church sold air rights for about $1.5 million to renovate its Civil War-era sanctuary. Then, six years ago, Calvary sold off one of its buildings and the parking lot to a developer with plans for legal offices.

In exchange, Calvary was promised about $11 million, which would provide $9 million to renovate its aging buildings, $2 million for its endowment and free access to a new underground parking garage.

Instead of hiring an outside firm to manage the construction, Calvary hired the same developer who brokered the deal to ensure the renovation project came in on time and on budget. That’s where the problems started.

“Churches are fresh meat for developers,” Butler said with a sigh. “You’ve got a bunch of confused volunteers running around, not really knowing what they’re doing. They mean well, but they’re not experts.”

Neither was Butler.

“I went to seminary and learned how to preach a sermon,” she said. “I don’t know how to do downtown development.”

Before the project even got started, preservation boards withheld their approval until the church promised to rebuild an ornate steeple and clock tower that had been toppled by a 1905 tornado.

Legend holds that John Wilkes Booth looked at the clock after he shot President Lincoln at nearby Ford’s Theater, noticed the time and changed course. Local historians considered it a historic landmark.

The lacy steeple now rises above Chinatown’s skyline, but the handcrafted fiberglass creation cost the church $1.2 million. “We’re hoping this one sticks around a little longer,” Butler said.

Butler said the developer, not the church, should have paid for it.

When the project was finished in February, Calvary had spent more than anticipated _ including the $2 million that was earmarked for the endowment _ and ended up $500,000 in the red. Butler said the church will eat that cost, but she’s not sure how.

At the same time, new and diverse members have more than doubled Sunday attendance, past 150, and Butler said the new facilities have helped provide a buzz and energy not seen at the church in decades. The church now has five kitchens, a recording studio, dozens of classrooms and a rock-climbing wall.

“There’s a new building, a new congregation,” Butler said. “As a leader, I can look back and lament the loss (of money), but that’s not productive for us at this point.

“It’s all one big gamble. You do the best with the information you have at the time.”

MO/PH END ECKSTROM

Editors: To obtain photos of Butler and Calvary’s new buildings, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

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