CUMBERLAND — They’re calling it a hail Mary.
Cumberland town officials announced at a public meeting Wednesday that a potential buyer could save a century-old church in danger of being razed to make way for a gas station.
The St. John United Church of Christ building has been at the center of public controversy since the congregation announced plans to sell the land to Giant Eagle, a Pittsburgh-based company that hopes to rezone the area to make way for a convenience store.
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A final rezoning hearing is scheduled for June 8, but Giant Eagle officials have stated they are willing to back out of the deal with the church if another buyer were to make a fair-market offer, estimated at $2 million.
Cumberland Town Manager Andrew Klinger shocked a crowd of about 100 people who gathered at the church Wednesday night to discuss the issue when he made the announcement about the town’s eleventh-hour efforts to save the historic structure.
The sale of the church to Giant Eagle is set to be finalized once the city/county council certifies the request to rezone the property. But Klinger said town officials are 30 to 60 days away from being in a position to make an offer for the land. They are working out details with TWG Development LLC, an Indianapolis-based real estate development company that has expressed interest in the property.
Klinger said the town is in discussions with the company to create a potential mixed-use development with senior housing and first-floor retail.
“There is more work to be done in working out the details, but we have a developer who is really excited,” Klinger said.
The news surprised church officials, who say the historic structure is in desperate need of costly repairs that are beyond the small congregation’s budget. The church’s stained-glass windows are boarded up in anticipation of the move to a new building.
The announcement was met with disbelief by church members who thought the saga was coming to a resolution.
“This is the first that our church has heard about that plan,” congregation board president Karen Nauden said to the crowd gathered Wednesday night.
“It makes me a little bit angry here that all of the sudden, we’re down to the wire, and you have a plan.”
City/county council member Ben Hunter represents the area and called the public meeting. He said he’d like to see the church saved rather than knocked down but at the same time understands church officials’ desire to sell the old building.
Hunter said the issue, which has pitted town officials against church members, can have a happy ending for both groups.
“If there is an eleventh-hour solution, let’s pull this off,” Hunter said. “My hope is to continue to work with the church, the town of Cumberland and Giant Eagle.”
With an expected passage of the rezoning set to happen in less than two weeks, town officials know they might not get a deal with TWG Development finalized in time before the property is officially handed over to Giant Eagle.
However, Klinger said they are willing to work with whoever owns the land to try to save the church.
“The devil is in the details,” Klinger said. “We’re going to have to figure out the financing, but the fact that the town is willing to work to make this happen is real.”
However, church members say they struggled for five years to find a buyer.
“I think this last-minute solution may never come to fruition,” church board vice president Rich Suiter said. “I’ll be surprised if it does.”