Former commercial sites suit many midstate congregations to a T

pramati@macon.comApril 12, 2014 

It’s said that Macon has more churches per capita than any other city in the country.

In fact, it has more than many people are aware of.

Since the economic downtown, more and more churches have popped up in empty stores and other commercial sites.

For property owners, it’s a chance to have a tenant in an abandoned commercial space. For the church, it’s an opportunity to assemble without having to commit the funds and resources to build a house of worship.

Charlotte Ethridge started attending services recently at the Macon International House of Prayer. It’s located in the shopping center at the corner of Northside Drive and Forest Hill Road. She said going to worship is more about the service itself, not where it’s being held.

“I believe the church is the people, not the building,” she said.

Gwen Watson, a member of the House of Prayer before it moved to its current location, said the storefront actually has certain advantages over more traditional churches.

“A lot of churches begin in storefronts because they need a place to meet,” she said. “Our goal is to be accessible to the community. We’re doing an everyday ministry. Our staff works 40 hours a week or more.

“This location was desired long before we came here. People can walk off the street when they need a place to go and pray.”

Director Jason Carr said it’s not so much a conventional church, but rather a house of prayer reflected in the name. It’s a place where people can go to meet and pray, and it is nondenominational.

“I grew up in a traditional church,” Carr said. “You can’t really compare. I think it’s easier to walk into a place like this. People can wear jeans and a T-shirt.”

Converted car dealership

Just a few miles away, the Assembly at Riverside holds services in what used to be an automobile dealership. The former service department is now the main sanctuary, complete with carpeting, seating and wiring for sound.

Gabe Cox, the campus pastor for the church, said it is a branch of the Assembly at Warner Robins, which was looking to extend into Macon. Initially, the church was going to locate in a different part of Macon, but that prospect fell through.

“The Realtor told us about (the current location),” he said. “It had great potential, but needed a lot of work. ... We were doing all this on a limited budget. When this became available, everything just fell into place.”

In fact, Cox said, the location turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it’s much more prominent and accessible than the other site.

Cox said 40 worshippers at the Warner Robins branch pledged to attend services in Macon for at least a year to help the Macon branch grow. Since then, it has grown to 100 worshippers, with some of the Warner Robins residents attending the Macon services well after their commitment was up.

Kay Emerson was one of those Warner Robins residents who still attends services in Macon.

“My husband and I volunteered to come here and help build the church,” she said. “We still love it. ... (The church) is all about the presence of the Lord, not where (the service) is in. We all love each other.”

Ashley Justice had never attended church regularly growing up. But about 18 months ago, she went to a service at the Assembly because a friend is the church’s nursery director. She’s been attending ever since, even though it’s a 40-minute drive from Roberta, where she lives.

“I didn’t know” it was in a former car dealership, she said. “It surprised me, but now it seems so natural. ... This is the first church that has felt like home.”

Ed Lauterbach of Macon had attended church in a more traditional setting until three months ago, when he began looking for a new place of worship. He saw the service of the Warner Robins branch on TV and decided to try out the service in Macon. It took him a while to find the church’s location, having mistakenly gone to the wrong car dealership.

Once he did, the location seemed a natural fit. He liked the style of service, the sermons and the friendliness of the church’s members.

“I’ve seen churches in small storefronts that are smaller than the size of this lobby,” he said.

Cox said the location has made the church staff have to think creatively at times because there are certain limitations working out of the former dealership.

For example, the church’s Easter Egg hunt, scheduled for next Saturday, will take place at Springdale Elementary School because the Assembly has no green space on the property, just parking spaces.

“We want to see unity and people coming together to watch their kids enjoying the day,” he said. “We have to be creative about how we do our outreach. But it makes us think outside of the box.”

Property reuse

In Macon, there was a big upswing in houses of worship taking over empty storefronts beginning in 2008, coming about the time when the nation’s economy started to tank.

Many churches had difficulty raising the necessary funds to buy a piece of property and build on it, while shopping centers and other commercial properties started to lose businesses overnight.

According to the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission, of the 26 permits issued to churches moving onto property that was zoned for commercial use during the past decade, the commission issued 20 of them since 2008.

Jim Thomas, executive director of the commission, said granting a church’s request to move into a commercial space isn’t always easy, especially if there’s a nearby business that sells liquor.

“It can be challenging because of the sale of alcohol,” he said, noting that both state and local laws require a certain buffer zone between a house of worship and a business that sells liquor.

Thomas said that buffer zone can vary depending on whether it’s a liquor store or nightclub that’s located near the church.

Assuming, however, that there isn’t an establishment selling alcohol nearby, Thomas said the commission doesn’t have any more problems issuing a zoning permit to a house of worship than it would any other business.

“As long as (the property’s) owner or manager is OK with it,” he said.

“We’ve had (church) applications brought by property management to us. For them, it’s about having a tenant paying rent. We’re aware of the impact. It’s been happening in Macon the past few years because of the economy. There’s been a lot of vacant space, and the churches don’t have a lot in start-up funds. It works for both parties.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 478-744-4334.

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