Failed redevelopment plans for a Kelowna church provided a cautionary tale for their brethren on the west side of Okanagan Lake.
The congregation of the Westbank United Church decided to simply sell their property and relocate rather than embark on an ambitious plan to work with private interests to redevelop the Brown Road site.
They considered what had happened with a much-hyped but ultimately unsuccessful plan to transform St. Paul's United Church on Lakeshore Road into a multi-use complex with a new worship and arts centre, hundreds of homes, and retail premises.
"That was a lesson for us to learn from, how everything sort of backfired over there," Shelley Marks, chair of the Westbank United Church board of trustees, said Monday.
"We did have a consultant come explain to us how we could build condos on top of a new church," she said. "But as a trustee, I was very worried about something like that, how it would all be on our shoulders if anything went wrong.
"Finally, we decided a redevelopment like that was simply out of the scope of our expertise, and we just listed the property for sale instead," Marks said.
The church, at 3672 Brown Rd., near the Highway 97 S intersection, was listed in early 2020 at $1.65 million. So far, there have been expressions of interest from other churches and the City of West Kelowna for the half-acre lot with a 6,675 sq.-ft. building that dates back to the 1930s, but no formal offers have been submitted.
Westbank United has struggled for years with a congregation that's declining in number and advancing in age. Similar challenges beset St. Paul's United Church in Kelowna, prompting the congregation to embrace a $20 million redevelopment plan and demolish the church.
But the project foundered in 2016, creating some animosity among members who’d financially contributed toward it, and since then St. Paul's congregation has shared space with other Kelowna churches.
At the Westbank United Church, there are about 65 members, most of whom are senior citizens, Marks said.
"With such an elderly congregation, and the cost of maintaining such an old building, it's just not viable to continue the church in that building anymore," Marks said. "We had been breaking even, more or less, but the expenses were starting to add up and there were major costs coming, like a new roof."
The intention is to use the proceeds of the eventual sale to buy a smaller building elsewhere, or rent premises. No in-person worship services are currently being held at the church in compliance with public health orders relating to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But BC Housing has leased part of the building for a 38-bed transitional housing program, and a winter mat program for the homeless will soon open.
Church worship services, under the direction of newly-hired part-time minister Linda Ervin do continue, however, on Zoom. And congregation members, while lamenting the upcoming move to new premises, are resigned to its necessity.
"Thirty years ago, like a lot of other churches, we were busting at the seams," Marks said. "It's definitely sad now that we have to move. But our members are just looking forward to the day when they can all get together again."