Shuttered stores find new life as churches
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
June 04, 2009

Shuttered stores find new life as churches

Shuttered stores find new life as churches
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
June 04, 2009

At Prime Outlets in Huntley, Ill., a former Mikasa fine

china store will soon become the home of Christian Life Church.

“This provided an opportunity, from moving from being kind

of a homeless church, if you will, to find a home,” said Pastor Daryl Merrill,

whose church had been renting space weekly at a local hotel as it started an

off-shoot of the main congregation based in Mount Prospect, Ill.

The tough economy may have shuttered some retail stores, but

the vacant spaces aren’t necessarily sitting empty: some are becoming new

locations for worship. Churches have considered former big-box sites, closed

auto dealerships and mall locations, all of which have room for their congregants

to worship and places for them to park.

Experts say it’s a potential win-win situation for both

churches that want to have a location they can use every day — rather than

once-a-week arrangements at schools or hotels — and property owners having

trouble finding new tenants, not to mention shoppers.

“This has been an opportunity for churches to seize upon,

with the drop in commercial real estate prices and eagerness for commercial

real estate owners to get anybody, somebody, to occupy their facilities,” said

Jim Tomberlin, senior strategist with Third Quarter Consulting.

His Scottsdale, Ariz., firm recommends churches that are

seeking additional sites for sanctuaries consider what commercial real estate

is available for purchase or rental.

RNS photo courtesy of Daryl Merrill

At Prime Outlets in Huntley, Ill., a former Mikasa fine china store will soon become the home of Christian Life Church.

He said existing buildings prevent the church from having to

pay for land and build on it.

“This is why healthy, growing, aggressive church leaders are

seeing this as a huge option on the table that didn’t exist a few years ago,”

said Tomberlin, a former megachurch pastor who helped Willow Creek Church in

Barrington, Ill., develop multiple worship sites. “You could have a nice,

commercial facility ready to go for a church for under $2 million.”

Some churches are opting for renting rather than purchasing

retail space. At two different Prime Outlets — one in Illinois and one in

Florida — congregations have gone that route.

Rick Feder, general manager of the outlet mall in Huntley,

Ill., said the Christian Life Church will use about 4,000 square feet of the

former Mikasa space. He expects the church will help build the number of

shoppers that visit the mall during its two-year lease period.

“These are trying economic times for retail uses, so I think

it’s all what’s beneficial to the property,” said Feder, whose mall currently

has 42 stores and several spaces available. “It’s one of those things where we

tried to do something outside the box.”

At Prime Outlets in Florida City, Fla., general manager Al

Dos Santos has a similar philosophy. The mall south of Miami signed a new

two-year lease with Torre Fuerte Homestead Church in April when the church

moved from one location in the mall to another that can better accommodate its


“For the church, it provides them with adequate space within

the shopping center setting, which gives them convenience,” he said. “For us,

it’s just occupying space that otherwise would be sitting empty.”

Pastor Jose Santiago of Torre Fuerte, which means “Strong

Tower,” said the church occupies a total of 6,000 square feet, including a

former home decor store, for a sanctuary that will seat up to 300, and an

additional once-vacant space for children’s ministries.

Larry Ortega, a commercial real estate veteran in Phoenix,

said he recently accepted a $1.3 million deal for a church to purchase a 16,000-square-foot

former Osco Drug store in Mesa, Ariz., a site that sold for twice the price as

little as three years ago. He’s also working with a church on the purchase of a

former auto dealership in nearby Scottsdale.

“Now, all of a sudden, there is an opportunity for churches,

if they have a strong membership or they’ve been looking at building a new

facility,” he said. “They are buying a facility for the price that they used to

buy just the land.”

Larry Maison, ministry operations director at Highlands

Community Church in the Seattle suburb of Renton, Wash., said his congregation

of 2,000 has been negotiating with the owner of a former QFC grocery store

because the church has run out of parking and its classrooms are full.

“We need something like 14,000 square feet,” he said. “Where

are you going to find 14,000 square feet? Where we’re at, that kind of space is

not available except for in an empty box. That may be in a former retail


As Maison put it, “Sometimes someone else’s misfortune is

somebody else’s golden opportunity.”

The use of former big-box stores is not new with the current

economy. Julia Christensen, author of the 2008 book Big Box Reuse, has

chronicled the increasing appeal of these spaces for everything from the Spam

Museum (at a former K-Mart in Austin, Minn.) to an indoor go-cart track to a

Florida church that swapped a former Winn-Dixie grocery store to a former



think we’ll see the fallout from this in the coming months and years but it’s

not like Linens ‘N Things goes out of business and a church buys it and moves

in the next day,” said Christensen, a visiting assistant professor of the

emerging arts at Oberlin College in Ohio. “It takes a while.”