CUMBERLAND — Owners of the historic St. John United Church of Christ are considering razing the 101-year-old structure and selling the land after a buyer who had planned to build a gas station on the site unexpectedly backed out of the deal.
Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle Inc. announced Monday it would abandon construction plans in Cumberland, having cited concerns to church owners about the ongoing controversy over the planned demolition for the building, which its members said is in need of repairs they cannot afford.
Town officials said they plan to reach out to church leaders with hopes of working together to save the historic structure, whose demolition they have fought as church members made plans to move out.
The parishioners’ new building, on a nearby plot of land owned by the church, is under construction.
With Giant Eagle no longer in the picture, church officials said they might have no choice but to destroy the church in order to sell the land, which already has been rezoned for commercial use.
“Once we take down the building, it can become good real estate,” church board president Karen Nauden said.
That decision could come as soon as this week after church officials gather for a strategy session, she said.
Giant Eagle representatives contacted church officials late last week via a conference call and said that, considering the negative publicity surrounding plans to raze the church, Giant Eagle leaders felt it best to call off the deal to purchase the land and build a gas station.
“They’re concerned the town of Cumberland is going to investigate them, contest them on every single step they do, and that would make it hard for them to build here,” Nauden said. “While I understand what they said, I am just very disappointed.”
In a statement released Monday, Giant Eagle officials said that, after much consideration, the company had thought better of its plans to locate a gas station and convenience store in Cumberland.
“After a thorough review of the Cumberland opportunity, for a variety of reasons, we did not feel that this proposed location best met the needs of our business,” said Giant Eagle spokesman Dan Donovan said in a news release.
Cumberland officials said knowing the church is safe — at least for now — is good news that will give them further opportunities to work with church officials to save the building and find a better alternative for the corner.
“We might be able to put a deal together that makes sense for the church and still helps us with our goal of trying to save the church,” town manager Andrew Klinger said.
Town officials had been adamantly opposed to having a gas station built on the corner since Giant Eagle went public with its plans to buy the building, and town officials attended several hearings to protest the development as Giant Eagle sought to have the land rezoned for commercial use.
During the past few weeks, town officials had questioned the validity of a permit for construction that was granted prior to the zoning changes.
The decision by Giant Eagle to pull out of the deal shocked church members, who had just celebrated when the rezoning was approved this summer after weeks of debate and hearings.
Church members had planned to move out of the building in a few weeks.
“I had already started packing up my office in anticipation of the move at the end of the summer,” the Rev. Jimmy Watson said. “We even had a garage sale planned for late August.”
Despite their disappointment, church officials said they were thankful Giant Eagle took the steps to have the site rezoned for commercial use before backing out of the deal. They hope that will make the site more attractive for a potential buyer.
Plans to move the congregation to the new church at Prospect Street and Carroll Road in Cumberland will continue, church officials said.
One thing is certain, the congregation cannot continue meeting at the old church much longer, Watson said.
“We have to move or the congregation will die here,” he said. “It’s an aging congregation, and this building is falling apart.”