Billy Helms, student director at East Hill Baptist Church, visited the Independent News offices to talk about his church’s decision to sell a portion on its property at the corner of Spanish Trail and Summit Boulevard to Dollar General.
He said the decision was a tough one but the $450,000 offered by Dollar General would give the historic church the opportunity to pay off its debts, renovate its facilities and put it on more solid financial ground, something the church had not achieved over the past 18 months.
Helms said the sale of the property was approved by a vote of the entire congregation. The decision was a tough for church with a long history. East Hill Baptist Church is one of oldest Baptist churches in Pensacola, constituted in 1899 by members of First Baptist Church.
Over the years, it moved to several locations on 10th Avenue and finally settled on Gadsden Street in 1933. The church relocated to Spanish Trail in the 1980s and quickly became an integral part of the Cordova area. The nearby Montessori school used the fellowship for plays and presentations. Homeowner association held their meetings at the church. Nursing programs held their graduations there.
However, the recent recession hit East Hill Baptist hard. The church went without a pastor for 15 months until Rev. Ron Wilcoxson answered the call to be its senior minister. The congregation was told the only way to get full price for the out parcel would be to sell the land for retail use.
The sales contract had a catch. East Hill Baptist had to gain approval from the city of Pensacola to change the zoning from medium density to commercial. Don Neal, owner/broker of Neal & Company, was hired by the church to handle the transaction. According to Helms, Neal assured them that the rezoning would not be a problem.
The city’s Planning Board approved unanimously on Nov. 12 the church’s request. Then residents in the area learned that Dollar General might be coming to their neighborhood and, well, all hell broke loose.
Crowds packed the Vickery Center to register their displeasure with the sale and zoning change at a town hall meeting hosted on Nov. 18 by Mayor Ashton Hayward. The church’s explanations fell on deaf ears. Both Hayward and Councilman Andy Terhaar, who is also a part of Neal & Company, said they were against Dollar General building on Spanish Trail.
Helms felt the church really has gotten to tell its side of the story. When the vote for the rezoning comes before the Pensacola City Council for a vote in January, he hopes that cooler heads will prevail.
He pointed out the sale will put the property on the tax roll. The design that he has seen showed a store that would blend into the community. Helms believed that there are people in the neighborhoods around East Hill Baptist Church that favor the retail store, but they were uncomfortable in speaking out.
The Pensacola City Council weighs in on the issue at its agenda review meeting on Jan. 20.