Church could find sanctuary in former Walmart

Ridge congegation proposes converting old building in Greenfield

April 17, 2012

Greenfield - The Ridge Community Church has shifted its focus from Layton Avenue to the soon-to-be-vacated Walmart building on Highway 100 in its efforts to build its own facility.

The church received conceptual approval from the Greenfield Plan Commission last week to convert part of the store at 4500 S. 108th St. and lease the remainder of the space.

Currently, the congregation leases space at Whitnall High School in Greenfield and had previously leased space in Marcus Ridge Cinema in New Berlin.

Shopping for alternative

Early last year, the church unveiled plans to build in the 9500/9700 block of Layton Avenue in Greenfield. When a last-minute hitch in February tied to the cost of developing that site derailed those plans, church officials said they would seek another location in Greenfield.

The congregation found an alternative site when Walmart followed through on its own plans to vacate its current 110,000-square-foot store and move to a larger neighboring building, which is now under construction and is expected to open this fall.

The church plans to buy the old Walmart building. It would use about 60,000 square feet of the space for a church and lease the remaining 50,000 square feet for commercial use.

Dealing with the city

First, the church needs the city to rezone the property and change the comprehensive land-use plan. Public hearings will likely be in June or July, said Chuck Erickson, the city's economic development director.

Because the church is proposed for valuable commercial property that could generate considerable property taxes for the Greenfield and its schools, city officials said they would like the church to give a voluntary payment in lieu of taxes.

The church had agreed to a payment in lieu of taxes for the Layton location, but has not yet taken a position on payments for the Highway 100 site. City officials normally seek to recover the city's portion of property taxes through payments in lieu of taxes. With the Walmart parcel assessed at $7.2 million, the city could seek $7,000 per million, or $50,400 per year, according to the city's rule of thumb.

Meanwhile, the church is firming up more concrete plans to submit for city approval.

Although church officials liked the Layton Avenue location, they are "excited" about the possibility of renovating the Walmart site, reducing the likelihood of it becoming an eyesore and finding a place for the congregation near the center of the community, said Mark Weigt, The Ridge Community Church's lead pastor.

A commercial church?

Assuming the church gains city approval, the old Walmart would be dramatically altered, though not necessarily taking on the appearance of a traditional church.

The store's exterior would be much different, but would continue to look like a commercial building, Weigt said. There will be no steeple or stained-glass windows.

The idea is to make it appealing to potential commercial tenants. But also, looking less like a church might attract people who have been put off by previous church experiences, Weigt said.

"We want to connect with them," he said.

Inside, the old big-box store would present a clean canvas to create a sanctuary with a stage and probably about 500 to 600 seats, though those plans are not yet firm, Weigt said.

For the Layton Avenue site, the church had proposed as many as 1,200 seats, which is something the congregation would like to consider for the Walmart site, but Weigt said he wasn't sure if there would be enough parking space to accommodate that concept.

Also inside, the church would like to create a nursery, Sunday school classrooms and a church office. It would also contain several conference rooms that could be used by outside businesses or groups, he said.

The church has already hired a real estate broker to start finding prospective tenants, Weigt said. The door is wide open in terms of types of uses - stores, offices, services.

One good thing about having the church beside businesses is that they are guaranteed a certain amount of traffic.

"You attract a crowd to them," Weigt said. "It's really great for business."

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