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Why is Del. Dwight Jones' church buying up Hull Street? 

Holy Land

Seeing itself as an economic savior, a South Side church hopes to revive the ailing commercial corridor of Hull Street by taking redevelopment into its own hands.

In doing so, the First Baptist Church of South Richmond has been on a shopping spree, snapping up $1.51 million worth of land and property along the Hull Street corridor, most aggressively during the last five years.

The church's land grab, according to an analysis by Style of city property records, has made First Baptist the largest private property owner between the 800 and 1600 blocks of Hull Street, from Commerce Road to Cowardin Avenue. As a property owner the church is second only to the city, which owns $1.53 million worth of property, including a library, a courthouse and a police station.

The church's land buying has raised questions among some local merchants, developers and city economic officials. Some wonder why a church needs so much property — and whether it's good for one group to control so much.

And some are concerned that the church may lack the development experience to get the job done. They point to a slew of properties the church has acquired since 1999 — assessed at a combined $277,000 — that remain untouched and boarded up.

"From what I can see, they're holding the area hostage," says Tom Robinson, a Realtor for M. Realty L.C. "And that concerns me, as someone who wants to see economic development happen over there."

Robinson, who is in the process of selling nearly two blocks of Hull Street property to a developer interested in revitalizing the area, admits that he's not completely familiar with the church's plans — and is hopeful they will come through.

Still, he asks: "Why does a church own all these retail properties? What does that have to do with the church?"

To First Baptist's pastor, Del. Dwight C. Jones, the connection is clear. This is a mission of good works — and control.

"It will either be us or some developer that is in it for the profit motive," Jones says. "[A developer] will do according to the dollar, instead of according to what is best in the community."

As for sitting on property, Jones points out that, unlike an outside developer, the church has a stake in what happens to the area and will involve community groups in helping make those plans.

Jones insists that the church is willing to work with partners to develop the property. But, he adds, proper land development takes time. "I think it's important to know that we are not a deep-pocketed capitalist who can buy land this year and have something on it next year," he says.

The commercial corridor, one of the first integrated areas of Richmond, bustled with shops and customers in the 1950s and '60s, lost steam in the '80s, and now seems to be straddling the line between success and failure.

The congregation of First Baptist hopes to tilt the area's future toward success while having a say in how that happens.

The idea to start buying property took root about a decade ago, Jones says. "It was at a time when we were growing and had to decide whether we needed to stay in town or move," he says. The church, founded there in 1821, decided to stay put, a block east of Hull Street at 1501 Decatur St.

Church leaders realized their building was landlocked. And the area around them needed serious improving. So they decided to start looking for property.

Of course, the church wasn't new to owning land. In 1975, it had purchased a building at 1500 Hull St., turning it into the South Richmond Senior Center. In 1987, it had bought a stretch of four buildings, at 1506, 1508, 1512 and 1514 Hull, to expand church programs.

Once the church decided to stay — and expand by purchasing land — other property owners in the area began to catch on. They raised their prices. "We paid probably three times more than what the property was worth at that point," Jones recalls.

Try nearly 10 times more. In March 1990 the church spent $78,000 on land and a stretch of three commercial buildings from 1422 to 1434 Hull St. — property that was assessed at only $8,000.

The church's buying spree heated up in 1997, when Tonya S. Scott, a church administrator, began to oversee property acquisition. "I just thought it was prime time," she says, "so we just started buying." Scott now serves as director of development for the church's community development offshoot, the Imani Intergenerational CDC — the entity charged with developing the church's property.

Two pieces of property were given to the church; others were purchased with money raised or loans offered through city programs.

The former Standard Drug Co. and the building next door, for example, at 1319 Hull, were donated to the church in early 1999. Later that year, two dilapidated buildings owned by the city's Industrial Development Authority were signed over to the church under a city loan program.

The church also paid for property in cash, raised from a special "Plus Offering" program instituted at the church that asked members to give more than their tithes. Since January 1999, the program has raised more than $200,000.

For now, the church is working with a consultant from the city on a five-year master plan, as well as a "Power Center" building that would include space for retail, restaurants, office and community events, as well as a technical center.

"We just really feel committed to the urban areas," Scott says, "and we feel like that's where our ministry is."

Deciding what is best now, Jones says, is easy: It's anything. "At this point it's not a very difficult thing, because it's at its worst, it's at rock bottom. So any type of revitalization is better than what we have now."

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