Churches Bring New Life to Shopping Centers, Retail Sites

For Mark DeYmaz, spending tens of millions of dollars to construct a fancy mega-church at a high-profile location simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense, even if the money is readily available.

And though there are plenty of highly visible examples of enormous church buildings stretching skywards along dramatic hilltops and beside heavily traveled interstates, there are ministries taking the opposite approach by quietly taking over and revitalizing ghostly commercial structures and former retail spaces.

DeYmaz, teaching pastor and founder of Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, and his membership currently occupy a former 80,000-SF Wal-Mart store on Col. Glenn Road and recently locked into a deal to purchase the abandoned Kmart complex at the corner of University and Asher avenues for a permanent home. DeYmaz says his congregation is just practicing what it preaches.

"We preach the resurrection of Christ, and we want to live that and demonstrate and represent that in everything we do," he said. "One way to physically represent that is to find these abandoned properties in somewhat neglected parts of the city and turn the lights on and provide a church where we can meet and celebrate. It's a physical manifestation of the resurrection, and is largely symbolic of what we preach."

While Mosaic is giving new life to empty boxes on a permanent basis, there are also churches using commercial real estate properties temporarily:

¥ Eagle Point Church occupied a highly visible location at Breckenridge Village shopping center on Rodney Parham Road for about five years, sharing parking with one of the city's largest movie theaters. The move was a relatively cheap and temporary fix for the growing church, and it recently moved out of the space and into a more permanent location in southwest Little Rock.

¥ Among the sounds of "rad McTwists," gravity-defying "360s" and the rest of the lingo that floats out of an indoor skate park, The Healing Place occupies about 6,000 SF at the bankruptcy-bound Phoenix Village Mall in Fort Smith. The church and its 80 members also share the vast property with the buzz of a barber shop and a bustling bank, but that's about all that's left at what many consider the state's first real mall.

"No, I never envisioned holding service in a mall," said Don Moore, senior pastor at the church. "But, frankly, it's been a pretty good fit, and we don't have to ever worry about not having enough parking. We like to consider ourselves an unconventional church, and being in this diverse atmosphere surely plays into that."

To accommodate growing congregations and to invigorate often dilapidated big-box structures and their surrounding communities, churches nationwide are finding the benefits of unconventional spaces. In Houston, the 16,000-seat Compaq Center has gone from hosting guitar and basketball gods to echoing cheers and hymns for, well, just one God.

Protected by a federal law enacted in 2000 that shields religious institutions from discrimination in land use, religious organizations in Arkansas seem to be following that national trend.

Hank Kelley, CEO of Flake & Kelley Commercial, a commercial real estate specialty firm in Little Rock and in northwest Arkansas, says it's not uncommon to get calls from congregations looking for space to meet. There's usually very little opposition from nearby existing retail outlets, he said.


"They are active, and with the numbers of start-up churches we see in this market we have several inquiries," Kelley wrote in an e-mail. "Usually they will be a good occupant, quiet user and pay as contracted. Their use cues well with other occupants even though they don't bring other shoppers into the center when other stores are open."

Divine Intervention

DeYmaz's congregation is a recognized model in the emerging multi-ethnic church movement, and he says there are significant percentages of both white and black members, along with members from more than 30 nations.

That attitude, he says, is the reason behind the church's quick growth.

"We officially got started on Easter in 2002 and moved around from various small locations, all the while building members," DeYmaz said. "We moved into the old Wal-Mart in summer 2004; and what were around 100 people has grown to more than 700."

The 80,000-SF former Wal-Mart, which now also includes in the same complex a Dollar General store, was a good deal for Mosaic. DeYmaz said when he initially inquired about the property in 2003, Wal-Mart wanted $18,000 per month to sublease.

"I hung up and never gave it another thought," he said.

Not, that is, until about a year later when he said a spiritual calling in the middle of the night prompted him to once again inquire about the property.


"To make a long story short, I called the next day and they said they would let us have it for $650 a month," DeYmaz said. "After so many years of sitting unused, I guess they figured that some money coming in was better than none at all."

Big Plans

Mosaic's efforts to find a permanent home concluded with the signing in November of a contract to buy the 105,000-SF Kmart property as soon as the congregation raises the $2 million purchase price. The church already has about $750,000, DeYmaz said.

But that $2 million is a much more solid investment than building a much fancier home across town, he said.

"Even if you double that investment to renovate it, if you put $4 or $5 million into it, then you have contributed so much more to the community and revitalization of an area and the utilization of an abandoned monstrosity," DeYmaz said. "A lot of time ambitions to build their own kingdoms for hundreds of millions of dollars propel people into the wrong direction; and with some creativity you can make a real impact, and that plays into our philosophy of converting the old building."

That creativity includes plans to use about 5,000 SF for themselves and to rent space to an upscale coffee shop, grocery store, book store or similar businesses that would cater to churchgoers and fill a void in that community.


"If we could buy the property and possibly rent to a master tenant, and use the rent to service an equity line and use that to service the property, that would be a good thing," DeYmaz said. "It's a solid investment and a big comprehensive win for everybody."

Another Man's Treasure

It's not just former retail space that churches are looking to as an alternative to raising funds for new construction.

About eight years ago, The Summit Church moved into a former special events center across the road from Wild River Country at 6600 Crystal Hill Road in North Little Rock. Attendance has grown from about 300 people in a high school gym to more than 1,000, and the building has been converted into a permanent home.

Just a short drive west of Summit Church down Maumelle Boulevard is a former roller skating rink that has been converted into a home for a congregation of more than 800.

"We totally renovated it; we put in a large sanctuary, hallways, offices, children's facilities, the whole nine," said Scott Purkey, assistant executive pastor of New Life Church at 10910 Maumelle Blvd. "At the time, in September 2003, we were attracted to the space and saw it as a huge advantage both economically and logistically to convert the skating rink. It worked out well and has served its purpose."

The church is now building a new location farther east on Maumelle Boulevard near Interstate 430 that will open in late spring 2008.


Maumelle City Offices Fill Old Retail Space

Aside from churches, there are plenty of other noncommercial organizations finding abandoned former retail spaces and calling them home.

A shining example is the city of Maumelle, which has gradually acquired an entire former retail-intensive structure to house its administrative offices.

"I suppose it's a little unconventional, and any time you're in an old building not designed for your purposes, there are a lot of kinks and unexpected things that come up," said Joshua Clausen, city clerk. "It was built in 1973 or so, so you're dealing with electrical things and water leaks and things like that."

The Maumelle City Council also meets at the site, which has seen a number of businesses come and go, including grocery stores, beauty salons, real estate agents, photography studios and gift shops. The city bought one-third of the building in 1990, and bought it outright with a bond issue in 2005 for about $1 million.

The bottom floor of the building was recently totally renovated to house the city's Senior Wellness Center, which includes a gym, a dance floor, a yoga center and several other attractions for the community's seniors.

"All in all I'd say this has been a great investment," Clausen said. "And we're doing a good thing by filling space and revitalizing a structure that otherwise could very well be sitting empty and collecting dust.