Passing the torch: Evangelical church buys Historic First Presbyterian Church building

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City of Grace purchased the historic building for $3.75 million, finalizing the sale on Sept. 28. The church’s new weekly service is expected to begin in January 2013. (Alexis Macklin/DD)

A multi-campus church recently purchased the Historic First Presbyterian Church building, expanding to three campuses and posing an uncertain future for the Historic First Presbyterian congregation, who have occupied the building since 1929.

City of Grace, an evangelical church, began in 2008 after the merging of Word of Grace church in Mesa and CitiChurch in Scottsdale. The two buildings are home to City of Grace’s two other campuses. The church spent two-and-a-half years searching for their third location in downtown Phoenix.

Terry Crist, senior pastor for City of Grace, said the church looked at several vacant churches and warehouses before the Historic First Presbyterian Church building, located on Fourth Avenue and Van Buren Street, went up for sale on Aug. 1.

“We looked at a combination of church buildings and industrial buildings,” Crist said, mentioning the closed Circles Records & Tapes building on Central Avenue and McKinley Street as one of the potential sites. City of Grace’s move to downtown was due to the rising number of young students and employees who live in the area.

“We feel like the real surge of growth will be in downtown,” Crist said. Currently, City of Grace has 250 members who live within five minutes of the downtown Phoenix area. City of Grace’s weekly service at the Historic First building will begin Jan. 20, 2013. The church hopes to start with 300 attendees and within two years expand to several thousand.

Two churches, City of Grace and Mars Hill Church, met the asking price of $3.72 million, with City of Grace ultimately purchasing it for $3.75 million. The sale was completed on Sept. 28.

City of Grace financed the purchase of the building through B.C. Ziegler Investment Bank, which specializes in acquisitions of large churches. A fall pledge drive is also going toward the purchase and restoration of the building. Currently, City of Grace has reached $1 million of its $1.25 million pledge goal. After gaining possession of the building, City of Grace began construction and renovation projects for the downtown location, including renovating the first floor.

In addition to bringing members to City of Grace’s downtown campus, Crist also hopes to start working with the surrounding community as quickly as possible. City of Grace hopes to use the most out of their new downtown facility, including the gym and kitchen. In a document sent to Historic First Presbyterian Church during the purchase discussions, City of Grace mentioned expanding departments at its other campuses to the downtown location. These sections include work such as homeless aid, tutoring and foster care.

This resonated with Historic First Presbyterian Church’s Interim Pastor John Poling, who already saw City of Grace’s influence here in downtown Phoenix.

“They’re very focused on having mission to people who simply need some help… they already have teams of people who bring food to people downtown. Now they’ll have a kitchen to do it out of here,” Poling said.

Poling, who has been an interim pastor since April, said that the opening of other Presbyterian churches caused decreased attendance at the Historic First Presbyterian Church. At the end of its ownership, the Historic First Presbyterian Church occupied only about 1,800 of the 65,000 square feet of the property.

“It became insuperable… maintenance just became a huge part of the budget,” Poling said.

Though the Historic First Presbyterian Church has 142 members, each Sunday brings together less than a hundred. According to Poling, this is a sharp decrease from the 2,800 people that used to gather there in 1958. Many of the church members now live in Tempe, Chandler or Ahwatukee.

Considering the short time the church was on the market, the Historic First Presbyterian congregation has some time to decide what their next step should be. City of Grace offered to let Historic First continue meeting in the building for 24 months while charging them utility fees.

At a meeting last Sunday Historic First congregation members discussed the future of the church. Many at the meeting, some who have attended services there since the 1950’s, were surprised at how quickly the building was purchased. The congregation wanted more time to decide whether to move to another location, unite with City of Grace or disband the congregation.

“Ultimately, I don’t think we as a body will exist at the end of a two-year lease here,” said five-year congregation member Amy Perez.

Other members, such as Deacon Brett Wingate, believe the Historic First community could learn how to grow from an organization like City of Grace.

“We can learn an awful lot from rubbing elbows with people who are successful,” Wingate said.

Historic First Presbyterian Church will hold another member meeting Dec. 2 to decide whether to leave the building. Until then it will continue to hold its morning Sunday service. Despite all the changes Historic First Presbyterian Church has undergone this year, the future of the area still looks bright to Poling.

“There is someone else coming in and doing a lot of the same things (we did),” he said.

Contact the reporter at motarola@asu.edu