WOONSOCKET â€“ The rise of storefront churches in retail zones once dominated by the greengrocer and tailor isnâ€™t necessarily a trend greeted with the utmost reverence in a city struggling to save its traditional downtown for small business.
But the Rev. Al Berja of His Presence Church International was preaching to the choir when he asked the Zoning Board of Review for permission to put his church in an old cotton mill.
So far as anyone can tell, itâ€™s a first for Woonsocket â€“ and the Zoning Board likes it.
â€śIt received unanimous support,â€ť said Zoner Chris Roberts, â€śand I think thatâ€™s because itâ€™s not taking away from any retail or office space.â€ť
Voting on Nov. 14, the board granted the church permission to move into 151 Singleton St., a cavernous building that housed the Rhode Island Plush Mill in the 1920s. The 50,000-square-foot goliath near the North Smithfield line has long been vacant, but it abuts two of the last surviving factories in the city where textiles are still being made, Hanora Spinning and Hyman Brickle. The only other neighbor is the Blackstone River.
From a retail or residential standpoint, the location is a desert. And thatâ€™s just fine â€“ not only from the vantage point of zoning officials, but Berja, too.
â€śItâ€™s good,â€ť he says. â€śWe can do music or a concert and we donâ€™t bother people in a residential area. There is plenty of parking and there is room to grow.â€ť
Though his goal is to expand the flock, Berja says it is currently comprised of just 22 members. Theyâ€™ve used a number of temporary locations to hold worship services, including the function hall at the Holiday Inn on Cumberland Hill Road, which the church has leased for the last several months.
The church is a branch of a Christian sect founded in the Phillippines in 1986 whose goal, according to its Web site, â€śis to saturate the whole world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we work hand in hand together with (the) Body of Christ.â€ť
Tax records list roughly 45 religious organizations in the city whose houses of worship and other real estate holdings â€“ some of them quite substantial -- are tax exempt.
Many are venerable icons of the cityâ€™s Roman Catholic heritage, like St. Ann Arts & Cultural Center, whose mustard-yellow turrets define the skyline. In recent years, however, the growth in religious holdings has been dominated by comparatively small groups whoâ€™ve taken over old retail and office buildings in or near the cityâ€™s traditional downtown.
Because His Presence Church will not own but lease 151 Singleton St., it wonâ€™t join the list of tax-exempt property owners, which also includes non-profit organizations and government agencies. The building is owned by Steve Lima, a recent candidate for City Council and the developer of Bernon Mills Estates, a riverfront condo complex still under construction.
Lima will still be required to pay property taxes on the mill even though itâ€™s leased for religious use, officials in the tax assessorâ€™s office say.
In August, the Zoning Board of Review granted Lima permission to subdivide the same building into four residential units, but itâ€™s unclear whether Lima intends to more forward with those plans.