Church still interested in Lee purchase

November 16, 2012 10:28:11 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


Five months have passed since Point of Grace Pastor Shane Cruse's bid for Lee Middle School was rejected, but he has not given up hope.  


Thursday night, he asked the Columbus Municipal School District's board of trustees to allow him to try again, this time submitting "a good bit better bid" than the $175,000 initially offered. 


The 14.4-acre property, along with the 96,350-square-foot school, has been on the market for more than a year, during which time Point of Grace has been the sole bidder. They were hoping to move from their leased location at 503 18th Ave. N. to a place of their own, where they could offer community outreach, with childcare, holiday feeding programs and a food pantry for the needy, classes on parenting and job preparation, and after-school youth activities.  


But in June, the board turned down their offer, saying contingencies the church placed upon the sale violated state law, which stipulates that if a school property is not sold with a reverter clause, bids can only be accepted or rejected. There can be no negotiations or discussions between seller and buyer.  


The initial bid asked for a six-month communication period with district maintenance personnel and removal of the covenant restricting future usage as a school.  


Cruse said he is now prepared to draft a new bid without those contingencies, but because the law prevents the board from telling him how much they want for the sprawling property, he is bidding blindly.  


The $175,000 bid was based upon the October 2009 sale of Mitchell Elementary, which is half the size of Lee and sold to Greater Pentecostal Church for $85,000.  


He said the board has told him his bid was too low, and he has spoken with several developers, trying to determine what might be an acceptable price for the district and still a good value for his church.  


One of his biggest concerns, he told the board, is the building is beginning to fall prey to vandals, who are breaking in and spray-painting graffiti on every surface, including the fire extinguishers. 


"We just don't want to wait so long that the property cannot be used because of the damage that is being done through vandalism," he said. "It's going to reach a point of no return. I think it would be in the best interest of our community to go ahead if the property can be used and let it be used before it's too late." 


But board attorney David Dunn advised board members against rendering a decision Thursday night, saying CMSD followed state statute and the bid requirements were "very, very clear." 


"There was a package put together for all the parties that were interested," Dunn said. "We gave tours of the property; we did everything the law would allow us and probably some extra the law didn't require but didn't forbid. And so, that's all -- that's all we should have done." 


He said if the board chooses to put the school back on the market and advertise for bids, the bid package will be the same.  


"Is the property for sale?" Cruse asked. "There are 'for sale' signs." 


"I think that's a question that right now the board has to consider," Dunn replied. "It would be out of order, now in the process, for us to respond and for them to deal with this right now. This is open forum -- a chance for you to talk. But the board normally does not respond on the spot, and so, at an appropriate time, I'm sure they will get back to you." 


As Cruse waited in the hallway for the board to come out of executive session on an unrelated matter, he said Point of Grace has held one church service in Lee Middle School's 1,000-seat auditorium, and the building offers plenty of space for his 250-member congregation as well as room for daycare, Sunday School and a big part of the church's mission -- community outreach.  


They have been sending buses to surrounding neighborhoods, picking up approximately 45 children for Wednesday night and Sunday morning services, but they could easily minister to more if they had enough buses. 


"Those kids over there, they're just so hungry for someone," he said.  


He would like to offer GED classes, after-school tutoring, homework assistance, life coaches and a safe environment where children can feel comfortable, he said.  


And he believes Lee Middle School is ideal for those missions. He briefly considered Brandon Central Services, where the district's central office is located and the monthly school board meetings are held, but though he was impressed with the move-in ready interior, he quickly dismissed the idea.  


Brandon went on the market at the beginning of the year, but so far, the district has not received any offers.  


Cruse waved his hand toward the cafeteria, which has been refurbished with an elaborate, raised wooden stand for the five board members, superintendent, board attorney and clerk, and features a sound system and other amenities they scavenged from district surplus. 


"When I walked in here, I thought, 'Wow,'" he said. "But it looks like they're settling in for a while."

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.