The council voted 3-2, with councilmen John Beresford and Hooky Huffman opposing, to grant Community Baptist Church a permit to operate in a shopping center off of Hickory Flat Highway.
Councilman Bill Bryan was absent.
Beresford spoke out during the meeting and said the church had “excellent” motives for wanting to move into the shopping center, but such spaces should be reserved for retail businesses, even when several shops are empty.
“The concern I have is that we have, in the last three or four years, voted on this similar situation in retail shopping centers where churches come in because we have vacancies,” Beresford said. “To me, retail shopping centers should be maintained as retail shopping centers as a good tax base for our city.”
The church’s pastor, Jeremy Sweatt, addressed the council and asked for its approval, despite concerns of a nearby neighbor, who spoke before the council last Thursday asking the request be denied.
Sweatt said while the other tenant in the center told the council he was concerned with the church’s congregation taking up too much parking, Community Baptist has tried to make the transition easier.
“Our services are only on Sunday mornings (and) Wednesday nights, so I don’t think there will be conflict there,” he said. “We’ve introduced ourselves to the neighboring businesses, because it’s our desire to be a good neighbor to them. We’re willing to provide for them reserved signage during our services…so that they would have reserved spots right in front of their businesses.”
But the tenant who addressed the council last week, Brian Harris, owner of Imagine Ocean Aquarium Services, said the issue isn’t just about parking.
Harris said after the meeting last week that churches don’t have a place in such retail environments.
“We’re not opposed to churches, but we just feel it’d be better to preserve the retail, small-business atmosphere of the shopping center,” he said.
Harris said the shopping center only has about half of its space rented, but with the new location of Northside Hospital-Cherokee being built nearby, the demand soon could change.
“We’re thinking that’s going to bring a lot more traffic and the potential for other businesses that may want to lease a space,” he said.
More retail in the center means more traffic and more business for all the tenants, Harris said last week.
Councilman Glen Cummins said Thursday night that the council may have not considered all angles of the issue.
“We’ve heard two sides of the story, but there’s one side that seems to be missing, and that’s the side of the landlord, the owner of the property,” Cummins said. “I don’t know if the owner has expressed any concern one way or the other, but I would think that owner that’s paying the tax bill would be happy to have it occupied. If there was a demand for that retail space, would it not currently be occupied by retail?”
“The owner makes the statement by renting the property to the church,” Councilman Bob Rush said.
Huffman did not say why he opposed granting the church a permit to operate in the shopping center.
During the Canton City Council meeting Thursday night, the council also:
•Voted unanimously, with Bryan absent, to spend $120,000 to haul in dirt from Nelson to re-cap an inactive landfill; and
•Unanimously voted to reappoint Zack Kell, Rebecca Johnston, Stan Rogers and Doug Key to the Downtown Development Authority.