Deal would give church chance at higher profile

Parking lot plan part of proposal for Lowe's

April 22, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

It's no secret that some people go to church on Sundays just to be seen. As it turns out, churches themselves can be equally interested in keeping up appearances.

Consider the battle brewing over a proposed Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in Ellicott City. Residents opposed to the proposal are wondering, among other things, why community mainstay Bethel Baptist Church is considering a deal with a local developer and the Howard County YMCA to make room for a retail giant like Lowe's.

The answer might surprise some. One of the most appealing aspects of the deal, church officials say, is that it would give the church room to build a parking lot that is visible from Montgomery Road, to replace the one that is hidden behind the church.

Put simply, leaders of the church want the community to be able to see how many people it draws.

"We've had a number of people come in and say, `We passed by, and we didn't think there was anything happening here because there weren't any cars,'" said the Rev. Bruce Romoser, pastor of the 38-year-old church. "People are not attracted to come here if they don't know there are any activities."

The church has a pivotal role in the proposal, which has inspired several large and loud community meetings. Rallies against the project, which some residents fear will worsen traffic on Montgomery Road, are scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. April 29. Both will be at the Meadowbrook Lane Park and Ride.

Under the plan, developer J. Chris Pippen would combine 4 acres from the YMCA and 13 acres from nearby homeowners and the church to make room for Lowe's and its 680-space parking lot. The benefits for the YMCA are clear: The estimated $3 million it would earn from the sale will help fund a new facility on 8 remaining acres.

The benefits for the church would be on a smaller scale. Under the plan, the church would give up land behind it and to the east in exchange for land to the west - where it could build a parking lot that would be visible from the road. It also would acquire a stoplight for its driveway onto Montgomery Road, where left turns can be perilous.

Romoser said the church is far from completing the deal, and he criticized the other parties for charging ahead before the church has had a chance to put the proposal before its congregation.

"It's created real difficulty. We have a negative image because it looks like this is cut and dry and that we're as involved as the Y is," he said.

When making a decision, however, the location of the parking lot is bound to be a factor, Romoser said. The church's Sunday services draw about 225 people, but the church has room for about 350, he said.

"I think visibility has a lot to do with the product," he said. "It's like a shopping center. If you see one with no cars in the parking lot, you think the stores are closed. And that's not true here. We're open seven days a week."

Residents opposed to the deal are critical of that reasoning, saying that there should be better ways to attract congregants than a high-profile parking lot. But other church officials in Howard County affirm Bethel Baptist's thinking, saying that appearances matter in a county with about 100 churches from which to choose.

"It's like a home. What people see from the road says a lot about who you are," said the Rev. Rod Miller of Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, whose parking lot is visible from Bethany Lane. "You want to present a good appearance, that you're thriving, reaching people, that you're alive as a church and not just a building."

The Rev. Ed Simpson, pastor at Harvester Baptist Church in Columbia, agreed. "If a person goes by and sees a nice-size church building with a few cars, they wonder if nothing's happening," he said.

Other churches in the county contend with the opposite problem: Their lots are visible, but they don't have enough spots to handle the crowds they draw. St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church on Waterloo Road has several lots but runs out of room every week; at Columbia Presbyterian, the women's Bible study fellowship draws so many on Thursday mornings that the letter carrier can't get into the lot.

Some pastors sympathized with Bethel's desire for more visible parking, but they said it should be kept in perspective with the larger goal of drawing people to church.

"We want to get people into the kingdom. It doesn't matter if it's their church or my church," said the Rev. Steve Green of Columbia Presbyterian. "We're not looking to get them into our church because we want a bigger group; we want to get them into the kingdom because they need us."

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