Historic Black Lexington church running out of options on parking

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) – The historic Main Street Baptist Church in downtown Lexington is considering every option, including a heartbreaking one, because of a difficult parking dispute that dates back almost 40 years.


The nearly 160-year-old Black church, the city and Town Branch Park leaders are trying to work out a problematic parking situation that the church has lost in the construction of the proposed green space and the expansion of the Central Bank Center, formerly known as Rupp Arena.


Main Street church leaders want a permanent solution that guarantees them about 250 parking spaces. If that doesn’t happen, they face some painful decisions, said. Main Street Rev. Victor Sholar. Moving from the current location has to be on the table, he said.


“We’re considering some options of possibly moving if the Lord closes this door,” he said. “I believe the congregation kind of sees the handwriting on the wall. Even if we were to stay, where they are expanding and bringing in more events, it creates a problem for us. It was already difficult adjusting our services with the basketball games. If they can’t guarantee parking, then we’re going to lose. We’re praying on it.”


The dispute originated from 1985 when Main Street Baptist was going to purchase a building behind its property for parking. But city officials bought it instead for the convention center and Rupp Arena, which is now called the Central Bank Center. Church leaders were promised they could use the new surface parking lot behind Rupp Arena for its members. However, it was never put in writing. The oral agreement has been honored by officials with the Lexington Center Corporation (LCC), which has operated the Central Bank Center, for 36 years.


The ongoing expansion of the convention center and Rupp Arena makes that parking no longer available, and plans call for the proposed Town Branch Park to encompass that parking lot.


The agreement from more than 35 years ago with then Mayor Scotty Baesler was a “handshake promise that they’d have access to the parking lot with no limitations,” said David Stokes, the lead mission strategist of the Central Kentucky Baptist Network.


“There were a few restrictions if there was a major event and they (the church) would accommodate that event,” Stokes said. “Through the years, there have been many occasions where the church did services earlier to be out before the convention center needed the parking space. That all went away when the city planned for this park being developed now.”


The city and church are continuing in negotiations that Sholar said has been ongoing for the 10 years he has been the pastor of the church in anticipation of the expansion. He said the church made it clear that they needed 250 dedicated parking spaces to accommodate the church’s 300 members.


“Initially, when the proposal was brought to our attention, they let us know what they were going to do and build this around us, but nothing was discussed about accommodating our needs despite us being there going on 160 years,” Sholar said. “Once we went to the papers, then it became a negotiating thing.”


So far though, the negotiations haven’t been fruitful in giving Main Street Baptist the parking space that is needed. Main Street is one of only two African-American churches in downtown Lexington, Sholar said.


Rev. Joseph Owens of Shiloh Baptist Church spoke out during a recent meeting, indicating they are following closely how Main Street could be accommodated by the city and backed what he called the “Mother Church.”


“I just want to say, in support of the Main Street, that for 125 years Main Street has been like the Mother Church, not only to Shiloh, but to many other churches in our city,” Owens said. “And we are all watching and waiting to see how our beloved city is going to handle our beloved Mother Church in this very tedious dilemma that we’ve found ourselves in. We do understand the bittersweet moments of progress that often come at the expense of vulnerable people who sometimes get pushed to the margins.”


However, without permanent parking, the church will not survive. The Kentucky Baptist church has been in downtown Lexington since the 1860s.


The Town Branch Park is a proposed 10-acre green space park and won’t be started until the renovations and expansion of the Central Bank Center, likely sometime next year.


Because the plan for the new park didn’t include what may happen with the church, Stokes said, “Main Street is basically punished for lack of forethought. And where are all these people who are supposed to come to the park going to park? They’re selling this as something for the city and a place to draw people to downtown, but if you can’t park anywhere, how are you going to go there?”


Stokes said the expansion of the convention center will likely make it a seven-day-a-week operation, which further makes parking a premium in the downtown area even on Sundays when church is meeting.


“At this point, where they are, there is a good faith effort on the part of the city and developers for the park and convention center to find a solution,” Stokes said. “So far that effort has fallen short. From the standpoint of the city relationship with the African-American community, this doesn’t look good.”


Sholar said the need for the 250 parking spaces has been “like a game of hot potato. They say that’s the LCC’s new garage and the LCC says they can’t guarantee parking. So we’re stuck.”


Further negotiations have included proposed plans for possibly 170 spaces but that doesn’t go far enough, Stokes said.


“Overall people were pleased with the fact that they came back with some type of recommendation but disappointed there had been another lack of communication, not from the church’s standpoint, but from the need to hearing they need 250 dedicated (parking) spaces. They are looking for a greater promise.”


Stokes was able to attend the last meeting between the church leaders, city and development planners. He spoke first, opening the door for Dr. Owens to speak up on behalf of Main Street in eloquent fashion.


Sholar said the median age of the congregations is about 65 making it difficult for anyone who has to park far away from the church. “Combined with the change of seasons of weather, it doesn’t lend itself to the growth of the church,” he said.


Mayor Linda Gorton’s Commission on Racial Justice Equality included 54 recommendations to address racial inequality in the city and included gentrification and displacement of minority populations.


“We’re going through to Plan B if it doesn’t work with the city,” Sholar said.

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