by Arielle Robinson
Last Tuesday evening after its city council meeting, Smyrna hosted a public information meeting about the prospect of Smyrna First Baptist Church selling its current property to the city and subsequently purchasing land, also from the city.
If the deal is approved, Smyrna First Baptist, currently located on Church Street a few minutes from the community center, would sell its nine-acre property to Smyrna for $15.8 million. The church would then purchase 5.5 acres of land at Atlanta Road from the city for $3.3 million.
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The meeting took place in the community center’s gym.
It was announced a couple of days after Mayor Derek Norton released a statement addressing “rumors and misinformation” about the potential deal through the city’s Facebook page Sunday, June 11, at around 9:30 p.m.
The church would relocate to Atlanta Road between the Reed House and SouthState Bank.
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The city hopes to use the nine acres it has gained to continue developing the downtown area.
None of this is final yet.
The city and the church have an agreement in principle, and according to an information sheet available to residents, that means that it “is an agreement that makes the major terms of the agreement clear and provides the framework to make a contract.”
On Sunday, July 23, church members will vote by secret ballot at its 10:45 a.m. service to decide whether the deal will go through.
If church members approve, then between August and September, city council is expected to vote on it.
If city council approves, then developers are scheduled to be identified between October and sometime in 2024.
Tuesday, Norton, Smyrna First Baptist Senior Pastor Jeff Pennington, and Economic Development Director Andrea Worthy mostly spoke and took questions from the audience.
“Well, probably the best place to start is a couple years ago,” Pennington said. “I really felt like our church—we kind of had a decision to make, and it had a lot to do with the fact that we had the resources to do several different things and I didn’t want to make a bad decision and lead our church in a way that wasn’t going to be helpful.”
Pennington told the audience that he worked with his leadership team within the church to determine what sort of deal would be best for both the church and the city.
The pastor said that he and a colleague had been assessing some places where the city has been “booming with growth.”
Pennington said he and his leadership team sought to “find a location not far from our church, but one that would suit our needs for our future, give us a blank canvas to build a new building, and to do so in a way that would set everybody up for a bright future ahead…
“The reason we’re meeting tonight is because we really feel like what we’re proposing checks all those boxes.”
According to an information booklet the church released, Smyrna First Baptist is in $1.6 million of debt and will use the sale to pay that off.
“We will conduct a building campaign to raise $1,000,000 so that we all have skin in the game. But when we move into our new facility, everything will be paid-in-full,” the booklet reads.
Pennington said that city council agreed with the decision.
“They affirmed, they see that this would be a really good thing for our city’s future too,” Pennington said.
Pennington said that the church and city officials have had “very open-ended conversations” with one another the entire eight years he has been pastor and before his time.
“[It’s] Always been a really precious relationship between our church and our city,” Pennington said. “I mean, we’re neighbors with each other, that’s just what you do with the neighbors that you have.”
Pennington presented the idea to his church congregation June 11. The video is here on the church’s Youtube channel.
The pastor said conversations about the proposal will continue for the next several weeks.
“We had presentations from our leadership team, we looked at if we were to move and consider this move, what would it look like, we looked at if we stayed what is that going to look like also, we spent a lot of time talking about that,” Pennington said. “…We’re going to continue to have those conversations in which we’re meeting with Sunday school classes, we’re going to be meeting with our study groups, hearing from them…and then on July 23rd, we’re going to vote as a church.
“And it’s a vote to either move forward with what we’re talking about today or it’s a vote to decide that we’re going to stay where we are.”
Norton said that the potential deal began as casual conversations over about a 12 to 18 month timespan.
“This isn’t something that evolved rapidly, this has been over many, many months from casual conversations that got a little bit more serious and then led us to where we are,” Norton said.
“I don’t think there’s any script for why it would be right now, but it’s just where the conversations led,” he said.
Norton reiterated that the deal is not a done one yet.
“From the city’s perspective, and all these members of council [Note: Norton pointed to all seven city council members sitting behind him] discussed it…what city wouldn’t look at an opportunity where you have 9 acres contiguous to your downtown and what that might look like for the future of your city?” Norton said.
The mayor also noted that the historic stone chapel, in its place since 1924, would be saved and repurposed if the deal goes through.
“That’s such an important part of our downtown, and just to know that that would still be a part of our future…that’s just wonderful, so really thank for you for that,” Pennington said.
Smyrna First Baptist was first constructed in 1886. In 1924, the church built and moved into what many recognized as the “rock church,” according to the church’s information booklet. The booklet says that Smyrna First Baptist built its current sanctuary in 1961.
Worthy, who played a role in redeveloping the downtown of Sandy Springs, described city staff’s perspective and its recommendation to the mayor and council.
“If this should move forward,” Worthy said. “You should take a deliberate process to put together an actual masterplan for the area, and what that would involve is a lot of public input. In Sandy Springs, that public input process took over a year or approximately a year.
“You went out into the public and you talked to them about what they want to see in their downtown, what types of greenspace, what types of uses, all of that type of feedback, and then you take that and put it up against a market analysis, what can the market really support.”
Worthy said that the goal is to “come up with a masterplan, with probably two to three different proposals that the community generally agrees on, that the city can then take out to the development community and go through an RFQ, RFP process to get a development partner to develop those plans…
“Again, you get a lot of extensive public input during the city masterplanning process, which is really important because when you collaborate with a developer, the developer wants to know, ‘what is it I could actually build,’ and the citizens pretty much agree on that’s what they want to see.”
Worthy estimated that the masterplanning process would take 12 months.
“We want qualified developers to actually be involved in this process,” Worthy said.
Worthy continued to explain the process.
“You get proposals from the developers to show they have the financial wherewithal to actually build this, to make it happen…and once you have a shortlist of qualified developers, then you go out and you say, ‘okay, I’ve got two or three developers I think we can work with’ and you have those developers actually spend a lot of time and effort in putting together a more detailed plan that the public can have additional input on.
“Now that detailed plan, again, in theory, should reflect what is in the masterplan that you spend a year doing, but sometimes it may be some tweaks that a developer may want to propose…
“And ultimately what comes out of that process is, we want the city to choose a developer to work with. This developer would actually also propose some initial financial terms to the city and how much they may be willing to pay for the property, how the deal is structured.
“For instance, in Sandy Springs—and I’m not saying this is the way we would do it here—but in Sandy Springs they sold off several parcels for several uses and the city maintained some parcels for themselves and ended up leasing out some retail space they actually own.”
Worthy said city council would have to approve negotiations with a developer.
She said the overall process of masterplanning and finding and working with a developer would likely take two years.
“…because it can be iterative, and lots of opportunities for lots of public on that, and frankly, I think it’s good to get the public input on the front end because we really want our developers to understand what it is we are looking to accomplish.
“[It’s] Probably a two-year process, probably conveniently lines up with about the time that you’re proposing construction of the church, so the church would still be located downtown until the new facility is built. That’s essentially the process that I’m proposing to mayor and council.”
Norton also clarified that if the deal goes through, Smyrna First Baptist would stay at its current location for two years while the new church is constructed.
“That gives us that time that you’re talking about to get the public, do the market studies, and do all those things to make sure that we get it right,” Norton said. “I think it’s also worth noting—whether we would sell portions of it or whatever it is—that property has not been on the tax digest, that nine acres, for a long time, so that will go on the tax digest…
“We’ve got some numbers built-in for if they [the church] would rent back the space, basically, as part of the deal, demolition of the houses on Atlanta Road [within the 5.5 acres], and permitting fees, that type of thing. By the time you bake all that into it, it’s a $12 million outlay from the city to the church to make this deal go forward.”
City officials then answered questions from the audience. The audience had the opportunity to write questions down on a slip of paper and city staff would give the slips to city officials to answer.
When asked about the funding for the proposal, Worthy said that the mayor and city council are still deciding how the potential deal would be funded.
“We’ve got a couple of different options for the council to choose from if and when that is approved—as we’ve said before this is not a done deal—but there’s different financing options that are available to us,” Norton said. “Including cash and other options, but that’s up to the council to decide and work through and then ultimately vote on, so nothing concrete yet.”
Norton mentioned that the proposed aquatics center that would have been on Atlanta Road would be moved if the church moves there. Where it would be and what it would look like is to be determined in the near future.
“We’ll probably have something to roll out to the public later next month or early August after the church vote,” Norton said.
One audience question asked, “How can we be sure a premium over fair market value is not being paid to a religious organization with our tax dollars?”
“I think the answer is…we have third party appraisals with fair market values listed,” Worthy said.
“This is well within the valuations of the property, so it’s not overpaid,” Norton said.
“That’s the standard anytime you’re selling public property,” Worthy said.
“If you put aside that it’s a church, if it was any other entity, the $15.8 million is well within the valuation of that property,” Norton said. “So whether it’s a church or independent other organization or business or some other owner, there’s a 100,000 square foot building on that property and that’s where that valuation comes from so whether it’s a church or anybody else, it’s well within the valuation.”
Another question asked how certain the city was that it would preserve the stone chapel and what would prevent a future city administration from destroying it.
“I think a thousand percent everybody is in agreement that that would be preserved and repurposed,” Norton said. “Scott [Cochran] is here, our city attorney, but I believe you could put a restriction, a deed restriction, or some other legal restriction to make sure that’s preserved going forward.”
“We have every intention and we’ll make sure that that is saved if this moves forward,” Norton said.
When asked about the traffic impact, Worthy said, “Staff has taken a preliminary look at that and we don’t believe it’s going to be a major issue.”
Community Development Director Russell Martin and Worthy mentioned that a traffic study would be done.
An audience member also wondered if any other structures besides the stone chapel would be repurposed.
“I think the answer to that is we’ll wait and see what the citizens want and what the plans look like, what any kind of masterplan would be,” Norton said. “Maybe some would be repurposed, I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to knowing that yet.”
Another question Worthy took asked after two years, what would the city want to charge the church for the lease of the property?
“The reality is, if it isn’t ready in two years, there will be a renegotiation of terms at that point,” Worthy said.
Worthy said after a question that the appraisal of the nine acres will be made publicly available “at some point once the contract is put together.”
Worthy also said that when answering a question about the projected revenue per year from the projected nine acres, “the reality is it depends on what all you would like to see there and what ultimately is approved.”
Answering a question about taxes, Norton said taxes would not be raised.
Because there was extra time left, the city let people shout their questions out from the audience to be answered.
One man said that he thought the proposal was a “rush to judgment” and he was concerned about what would go in the space the city wants.
“My idea of what the city wants to do with this? More high-rent apartments and condos?” He said.
Pennington explained his perspective.
“If we’re going to relocate our church…there’s only one real parcel of property that would make sense in proximity…I wouldn’t want us to move anywhere far away from where we are right now because we’re in the heart of where we feel led to be for our mission…so it’s about the availability of that parcel of land,” Pennington said.
From the city’s perspective, Worthy explained that both the 2040 Comprehensive Plan and the Smyrna BOLD Plan to improve the downtown and overall city call for additional retail and restaurants near downtown, so those could be possibilities.
“Anytime a piece of property becomes available in downtown, that’s very important to us,” Worthy said. “It’s very important to me as the economic development director. We have a Market Village that is doing well, but frankly, I think could be better. It could have some other things that are complementary to it.
“And frankly, from an economic development perspective, to be able to control this piece of land as a city and tell a developer what we want to see instead of a developer coming to us and telling us what they want to build there…I just think this is an opportunity.
“If the church is going to sell the property…I highly recommend that the city be the one to purchase it and take our time to figure out exactly what we want to see there, then let the developer have it. I don’t want them selling directly to the developer…and frankly, a developer is not likely to save the chapel, that’s the other piece of it.”
Norton later addressed the point about what the city has planned to go there as well.
“We’ve heard from you all that you want retail, restaurants, parking, green space, or whatever it is,” he said. “And so in this two year period, you are going to have a chance to choose as a community what that looks like. So I don’t have a specific answer and there can be a range of options that you could maybe speculate on what would go there and what that might mean financially over the years from a tax digest standpoint, but the situation that we’re in is we have an opportunity to expand our downtown by nine acres and do something special for this community for the next hundred years…”
City officials also responded to a concern from a woman who believed the two-year timeframe for building the new church would be unrealistic.
“The Covenant Church that was built on Atlanta Road was built in one year,” Norton said. “So I believe—I’m not arguing—but it can be done and the estimates on the two years were based on folks that are a lot more savvy with construction than any of us are.”
Worthy said that the church needs to vote first and then further discussions will be had about future steps.
“It’s a very, very difficult decision to decide to relocate your church to a different piece of land,” community member and Smyrna is Fabulous Executive Director Mike Mitchell said from the audience. “I’m sure that’s a difficult decision, but there has to be a legitimate reason for it and it’s not ours to question why the church wants to sell this land.
“If these conversations have been happening for 12, 18 months…I doubt very, very seriously that anybody on that council or anybody in this city went to the church and said, ‘Hey, let me buy it from you.’ We’re getting a lot of benefit out of this. We’re keeping a historical landmark, which is huge. The building was built in 1924. We’re keeping that and if the city purchases this plan, we can guarantee that that treasure is maintained.
“If a developer purchases this land, they can be out there with pickaxes tomorrow knocking it down. It’s supply and demand, this is a valuable piece of property. I don’t have an opinion about the pricing of the property, and I do think that further scrutiny is certainly desirable, but I think as far as striking while the iron is hot, that’s absolutely what we have to do in this situation. I for one, and I live a block from this church, I am all about it. Pastor, I hope your congregation sees the value in this proposition and that we can move forward because anything we can do to expand downtown, even if it is residential, is a good thing for Smyrna, period.”
To watch part of the public information meeting held last week, click here.
To watch Pennington present to his congregation about the proposed deal, click here.
The church also answers many questions and has scenarios of what would occur if the deal goes through or not, among other important information in the aforementioned information booklet and at a webpage on the issue.
Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.