Elders: Local criticism unwarranted

By Errol Castens
Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – When Oxford Church of Christ elders voted to sell their 0.95-acre campus on North Lamar Boulevard, the announcement of their decision immediately was controversial.

Although the buildings range from 30-60 years old, preservationists consider them an important part of the city’s architecture, and neighbors say they hate to lose the graceful stone structures that separate them from downtown’s business.

Most upsetting to many was the announcement that a Greenwood developer would buy the site to build a hotel, with the church making plans to build more suitable facilities on 12 acres near Highway 7 North.

“It makes me sad for people to come in and destroy our hometown,” said Molissia Swaney, a North Lamar resident and member of the Oxford Historic Preservation Commission.

City officials responded by including the church property in a new historic preservation district. Whether that measure will ultimately prevent the demolition and rebuilding is unknown.

Church elders say the church’s position is not commonly understood by the Oxford public.

“I have some very fond memories of the property and the location there, but … it’s just a building and just property,” said Kenny Coleman, an Oxford businessman. “The church consists of the people, and as long the people go with us, the church is intact.”

Lengthy consideration
Coleman said nearly two years ago a committee of church members started considering options to accommodate growth. Several options were considered to expand the present facility, but each was only a partial solution, he said, and each would require new funding.

The committee reached a majority opinion that the church should sell and reinvest in a new facility. Elders confirmed that consensus.

“The choice was that we would be able to move an area that would give us more space and to have a facility that is all the same age, with the latest in energy savings and technology,” said Dr. Ernest Harland, another of the church’s elders.

Committee members were not unanimous in their endorsement, and dissenting opinions portended a division that would eventually draw several dozen church members away from the congregation of some 350, although elders were given an 84 percent reaffirmation vote in the midst of the controversy.

An appraisal tagged the value of the property at $4.5 million, Coleman said, and elders entertained several offers. Dr. Brad Person of Greenwood, who has built resort hotels in other college towns, offered $5.2 million net.

Why punish church?
Church leaders say that opting to sell for a lesser value in order to preserve the buildings would not serve the service, educational and evangelism missions of the church.

“If we have to endure an undue financial hardship due to whatever decisions are made and we can only get $2 million for it, we’ll say, ‘Mr. Architect, tell us what we can do for $2 million,’” Coleman said. “We do not plan to go into debt.”

Coleman said he believes the church hopes to avoid any litigation over the issue but added that if preservation means getting significantly less for the North Lamar property, “We would probably consider that a financial hardship.”

Harland, an Oxford veterinarian, says the church’s plans have taken on more of a public nature than he ever imagined.

“This is not that big a deal,” Harland said. “It’s just that we’re wanting to be where God wants us to be.”

Errol Castens is the Daily Journal’s Oxford bureau reporter. Contact him at 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.