City aims to buy, resell historic church building

Sam Stockard, Murfreesboro Post, January 4, 2015

The former First United Methodist Church, downtown Murfreesboro has been a part of Murfreesboro's 'skyline' since 1888.

The former First United Methodist Church, downtown Murfreesboro has been a part of Murfreesboro’s ‘skyline’ since 1888.

With an eye toward preserving a historical church tower, the city of Murfreesboro will consider buying Franklin Synergy Bank’s downtown building for $1.55 million then selling it for redevelopment, Mayor Shane McFarland confirmed.

City Council members received information recently from City Manager Rob Lyons detailing the city’s proposed offer to purchase the property at East College and North Church streets, the former First United Methodist Church building, which was transformed into a bank building in the early 2000s. The council could consider the matter, including the possibility of setting up tax incentives for a developer purchase, at its Thursday meeting at City Hall.

Under the proposal, Franklin Synergy, which is building a new Rutherford County headquarters along Medical Center Parkway, would lease the building from the city until a developer submits proposals to repurpose the site, according to McFarland.

Franklin Synergy, which merged with MidSouth Bank in 2014 after it opened at the site in 2002, is constructing a two-story bank office, which could take roughly a year, and has been trying to sell the property for several months. Bank officials received site plan approval in September from Murfreesboro Planning Commission.

Franklin Synergy President Lee Moss said the bank has had “dialogue” with the city – as well as other developers – about a land deal, but he could not speak to the possibility of the local government buying the property and then reselling it for development.

“We would love to see the sanctuary saved,” Moss said. “That’s got to be ultimately up to whoever acquires the site.”

The former First Methodist sanctuary and its tall tower date back to 1888, and though it doesn’t qualify for the National Register of Historic Places because of physical improvements, it holds sentimental and historical value in the downtown area. One of its biggest problems is deterioration in the tower and sanctuary, which has been vacant since the church moved to Thompson Lane about 14 years ago.

City officials, however, believe the property has a great deal of potential, especially as part of a Lytle Street and Maney Avenue corridor. The City Council recently authorized spending $75,000 to study development of the area as an arts district.

Murfreesboro already owns the corner of the block at East Lytle and North Spring streets where free parking is located. McFarland said the city would have been a participant one way or another in the bank’s effort to sell the building to a developer.

“I don’t see us necessarily as being a real estate agent, but I see us as being able to be a mediator with the downtown area, as well as the development that comes down there,” he said.

The mayor’s goal is to solicit development proposals and guide how the development takes while maintaining the historical church structure. He believes the potential for redeveloping the entire lot goes hand in hand with Rutherford County’s planned $73 million Judicial Complex project, a combination courthouse and parking garage less than 100 yards up Lytle Street.

McFarland says development there should fit the city’s 2035 plan, which is under consideration, and bring in a mixed-use project with retail, office and dwelling space.

“We continually hear that people would love to live downtown if there was any opportunity to do that,” he said.

McFarland said he hopes to start partnerships with the Main Street program, an advocate for downtown businesses and preservation, as well as MTSU as the proposal moves forward.

City Councilman Eddie Smotherman, reached before receiving information, said he could favor a repurposing of the former church building if the city were to buy it. But he did not like the idea of buying it and reselling it.

“If that’s the case, that needs to be the private sector,” he said.

Smotherman said he believes the lot would be an excellent place to expand parking in the downtown area and somehow incorporate the old church tower to maintain the historical structure.

City Councilman Rick LaLance said he leans toward letting market forces take care of the property’s sale. But because of the old church’s historical aspects and the fact the city owns a portion of the block, the proposal for the city to purchase it is worth considering, he said.

City Councilman Ron Washington said he has no interest in trying to renovate the former sanctuary but leans to preserving the tower.

“We’re trying to make sure the downtown district and residential area around it are vibrant,” he said, noting he favors a multi-use development there.

Washington said he is “warming up” to the mayor’s proposal.

Writer Sam Stockard can be reached at [email protected].

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