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.
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.”