Church picks Prairie Pointe to build its new home

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Twenty-one months after losing its meeting facility to the worst fire in the city’s history, Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church is well on its way to establishing a new home within the Prairie Pointe housing development on the east edge of town.

Last week the Hillsboro City Council approved the annexation of 16.6 acres within Prairie Pointe for a multi-million-dollar project that church leaders believe not only will benefit the congregation but also the community.

Plans calls for about 11 acres to be designated for the church campus. The remaining 5.6 acres will be sold to a private developer for the purpose of establishing up to 14 new homes, and for extending Prairie Pointe Street, from its current start at C Street, north to A Street near the elementary school.

At its Dec. 6 meeting, the city council is expected to act on a recommendation from the Hillsboro Community Planning and Development Commission to approve the congregation’s preliminary and final plats.

“We’re excited with the way this project is coming together,” said Darrell Driggers, chair of the church’s 10-member Planning Committee. “We believe it will not only be a good move for our church, but a nice addition for Hillsboro, too.”

Choosing to relocate

The congregation’s decision to leave its traditional location on the 100 block of South Washington was a difficult one, Driggers said. The congregation constructed its first building at that location in 1893.

“A congregational survey shortly after the fire indicated that most of our people wanted to stay downtown if at all possible,” Driggers said. “In fact, that was our (Planning Committee) assumption when we started our work.”

As the committee continued to evaluate the needs of the congregation and the potential of the properties it owned on the east and west sides of Washington Street, momentum began to build for finding a new location.

While the church and committee liked the central location of the traditional downtown site, Driggers said a number of factors led the Planning Committee to recommend a move:

  • having enough space to build a single-story structure that would enhance accessibility for the congregation’s large senior population;
  • a desire to position all gathering spaces close to the sanctuary and fellowship hall;
  • the limitations regarding the layout of a building, given the parameters of either lot;
  • the challenge of meeting code requirements for off-street parking;
  • the disadvantages of having the church campus divided by a highly traveled Washington Street.

“We explored the possibility of closing that block of Washington Street to create one unified campus,” Driggers said. “Even if the city had consented to that idea, the utilities along Washington Street simply limited what we could do with a building plan. We couldn’t build over the utility because the city would need to maintain access to it.”

The Planning Committee considered several locations around Hillsboro before settling on Prairie Pointe, according to Driggers.

“One of the things that attracted us to Prairie Pointe was its proximity to the elementary school,” Driggers said.

“Our congregation has said that we want children and young families to be a priority for our ministry. We’ve had discussions about hosting a day-care center in the new building or providing a place for after-school programs. Being near the school could be a benefit.”

Once Prairie Pointe was identified as the site of choice, the committee invited residents of C and Eisenhower streets to a meeting to hear their responses to the idea of having a church located near their homes.

“We wanted to be good neighbors-wherever we might locate,” Driggers said. “And we made some significant adjustments to our initial plans after listening to their input.”

Plans come together

Even with a general site identified, the Planning Committee faced many more decisions before settling on the present plan, Driggers said. Key issues were where to place the new building and what kind of street accessibility would be both beneficial and affordable.

Driggers said the committee worked closely with Prairie Pointe owner Dorothy Soldan in regard to land price, building location and the concept of having a smaller residential development within her larger plat.

“Dorothy has been very cooperative from the start,” Driggers said. “Getting this plan nailed down has taken longer than any of us thought it would, but it hasn’t been because of Dorothy.

“You just have to deal with a lot more issues when you develop new ground than when you choose a lot that’s already been developed.”

Driggers said the committee considered several site possibilities within Prairie Pointe before settling on the final one.

“Early on, we thought the best plan would be to extend Prairie Pointe Street to A Street,” Driggers said. “But we knew that we, as a church, couldn’t carry the cost of adding all that street without linking it somehow to a residential project.

“Our congregation sent a clear message that it didn’t want the church to become a residential developer-and we totally agreed with that,” he added.

After considering various scenarios, Driggers said the breakthrough came when the Planning Committee contacted Marv Schellenberg, a successful land developer in Wichita.

“Marv grew up in Hillsboro and in our church,” Driggers said. “He was willing to come alongside us for the sake of the church, knowing full well that taking on a modest-sized residential development in our small community won’t be a lucrative project for him.”

Because of Schellenberg’s involvement, the church will be responsible for less than a fourth of the total cost of the full street addition, Driggers said.

“We are extremely grateful for Marv’s willingness to be part of the larger project,” he said.

The residential side

Schellenberg has divided his residential project into two phases.

The first phase will extend Prairie Pointe Street to the north by about 400 feet. Entrances to the church lot will be to the east side of the street. A residential cul de sac will be located on the west side.

The cul de sac will provide access to five residential lots.

When five to six lots have been sold, Phase 2 will be launched. When completed, it will extend Prairie Pointe Street the rest of the way to A Street and open nine more lots for houses-five on the west side of the street and four on the east side.

Schellenberg said he is researching housing needs in Hillsboro and will plan his development accordingly. The early plan calls for single-residence dwellings.

“I need to get a pulse of where the market is in Hillsboro, and what size of homes are needed there,” he said. “I see now as something like Carriage Hills or something a little smaller than those homes.”

The houses will have basements and Schellenberg said he is hoping that many will have view-outs from those basements.

The church building

Plans for the new church building, meanwhile, are well under way, Driggers said. The church has engaged the Wichita architectural firm of Howard & Helmer to help the Planning Committee mesh the input from several congregational sub-committees into an integrated and efficient floor plan.

No stranger to Hillsboro, Howard & Helmer designed the new science building on the Tabor College campus as well as the new entrance being added to Hillsboro Community Medical Center.

Driggers said the relationship has been a good one so far.

“We like the way our floor plan is developing, but we want at least one more round of feedback with our sub-committees before we present a floor plan and elevation to the congregation as a whole,” Driggers said.

Whatever the final plan turns out to look like, the new building will be significantly smaller than the former one.

“The insurance company had our former building pegged at 59,000 square feet,” Driggers said. “We knew we couldn’t duplicate that even if we wanted to. Our committee set a target of around 36,000 square feet to start with. It’s been a challenge to keep it at that.”

According to early estimates, a project of that size would cost around $5 million, including the parking lot and furnishings, Driggers said.

A combination of insurance money, proceeds from a congregational capital campaign this summer, and possibly a building loan will be used to pay for construction once the plans are finalized.

Last week, the committee met with the architects to prepare a preliminary building plan that will be used as a basis for soliciting estimates from three general-contractor candidates.

“We’ll know then whether we’re on the right track in regard to what we feel we as a church can afford, or whether our committee will need to take another run at it,” Driggers said.

Looking ahead

The current timeline calls for ground-breaking in March and for construction to be completed in time for occupancy by summer 2007.

“We’re looking forward to that day, obviously,” Driggers said. “It’s been a challenging but very fulfilling process so far, and we know we have a lot of work ahead of us yet.”

He said the church has received considerable assistance and encouragement since the fire.

“The community of Hillsboro-especially the school district, Tabor College and the other churches in town-has been so gracious and generous to us while we’ve been without a building.

“We can never repay that debt in full, but when the new building is finished, we want to find ways to share it with the community as much as we can.”

Until then, Driggers said the committee is well aware of that it needs help from above as well.

“This building process is much larger than our committee,” he said. “We continue to ask God to lead us and are very much at peace with how God is taking us through this transition.

“Our vision for the future is that through our people, our meeting place will be an open, inviting worship and ministry center.”

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