By RUSS OLIVO

rolivo@woonsocketcall.com

WOONSOCKET – If all goes according to plan, the long-vacant site in Walnut Hill Plaza that once housed the Mark Steven factory outlet could spring to life again. But don’t look for those discount personal care products that made the store a popular retail destination.

The Florida-based company that purchased the struggling Diamond Hill Road shopping center a year ago wants to lease the site to a church – not a retail merchant.

Walnut Hill Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of plaza owner Lionheart Capital of Miami, and Waters Church have filed a joint application with the Zoning Board of Review for a permit to allow church services in a commercial zone.

Based in North Attleboro, Waters Church has been operating a satellite for Sunday services out of leased space at Woonsocket Middle School for almost two years. In a brief phone interview Executive Pastor Shane Parsons said the arrangements was always considered temporary.

“We always wanted to find a permanent place,” said Parsons.

Waters Church is a non-denominational Christian congregation that’s managed to keep growing by delivering a traditional message with contemporary flair. It operates a number of ancillary programs offering after-school enrichment and religious studies for youth.

But no church may operate in a high-intensity commercial zone – ‘C2’ as it’s listed in the zoning ordinance – without an explicit waiver from the zoning board known as a special use permit. A hearing is scheduled for July 8 in Harris Hall.

With the traditional retail sector facing an onslaught of competition from online merchants, Lionheart’s willingness to entertain a lease with a house of worship reflects a growing trend among retailers toward populating sluggish malls and shopping centers as mixed-use developments. Spaces once re served for stores are increasingly giving way to housing, various sorts of classrooms and entertainment.

The trend already appears to be well under way at Walnut Hill Plaza, where the leading “anchors” are Aero Trampoline and Planet Fitness.

A global developer with interests in hotels and shopping centers, Lionheart purchased Walnut Hill Plaza in a $5.7 million deal last June 29. But more than half of the shopping center’s 29 storefront “pads” are vacant, including the roughly 60,000-square-foot shell of the former Sears store that closed its doors in 2017.

The former Mark Steven factory store, which used to sell overstock and discontinued items from the inventory of CVS Health, has been shuttered for at least a decade. It was commonplace to see shoppers wheeling out carriages packed with travel-size dispensers of hand soap, shaving cream, toothpaste and similar items from store shelves. Mark Steven still exists as a distribution affiliate of CVS Health, but it no longer maintains a factory outlet store.

According to the zoning application, the old Mark Steven has about 10,000 square feet of space, but it’s not particularly customer-friendly for traditional retailing.

“The proposed church would occupy a portion of the premises in the lower level on the easterly side of the plaza, which is not suitable, nor has been historically suitable, for the conduct of major retail trade and services to the general public,” the application says.

The proposed lease has at least once enthusiastic supporter in City Hall – Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt. While some have questioned whether leasing a portion of the retail plaza for worship services is a wise use of the space, Baldelli-Hunt’s answer is an overwhelming ‘yes.’

“I actually think this is a good arrangement between the owners of the plaza and Waters Church,” the mayor said. “I think this would be very beneficial to the business community in that area.”

Baldelli-Hunt said the influx of worshipers associated with the church will bring new visitors to the shopping center, potentially generating additional business. Moreover, Baldelli-Hunt said, there is ample space available in the plaza that is more suited to retail enterprise.

The mayor adds that Waters Church has been a laudable civic partner, and she’d like to keep it in town.

“They run a very engaging church, and they’re also very engaged in the community,” she said. “They’re always one of the first groups to volunteer at citywide cleanups or to help out in situations where there may be a need.”

Waters Church is an offshoot of a much larger worship group that operates out of another site in North Attleboro that wasn’t originally built as a church. It offers worship services in a re-purposed industrial building of more than 100,000 square feet, located at 57 John Dietsch Square. The site hosts weekly worship services for a block of some 1,500 church members a week.

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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