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A success from the ashes of eminent domain

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published May 25. 2014 4:00AM

A Hispanic Baptist church in New London may be one of the few winners to have come out of the destruction of Fort Trumbull by eminent domain.

And, curiously, the church's success in the wake of the taking and demolition of its Fort Trumbull building could soon greatly help animate an unfolding renaissance downtown.

After its building was taken by the New London Development Corp. around 2001, Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de New London found some empty land in a center city neighborhood, on Redden Avenue, and built a big modern new church.

And in the years since, the Hispanic church, which was originally created in the 1970s, as a ward of the traditional American Baptist Churches USA's New London congregation - which worshiped in an 1804 church on State Street - has been thriving.

In fact, the Hispanic Baptist Church has outgrown its new building, attracting more people than can fit for regular services in its 300-seat main sanctuary.

Meanwhile, its original parent church, on State Street, has been withering, with fewer than 50 congregants most Sundays, many who come from suburban towns. Soon they probably would have had to abandon their 210-year-old church.

"The community changed around us. We missed the boat," said the former pastor of the First Baptist Church on State Street, Tom Hogsten.

But Hogsten and Daniel Martino, the longtime pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, have led their respective congregations to what looks like a bright new future for both.

The congregations voted unanimously last fall to merge into a new church, Church of the City, a modern, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-generational church of the 21st century.

Both men say they hope to correct the mistakes of the 1970s, when New London Baptists encouraged a separate congregation for Spanish-speaking members. In the new world, they will be combined, along with a new Haitian component of the church featuring classes in French.

At the same time the churches were working on their merger, another new opportunity arose.

Bank of America, completing a retreat from downtown New London, which had begun with the unfortunate posting of an armed guard on State Street, put up for sale its large building.

The two pastors decided it was a great opportunity and ended up buying the building, which wraps around the 1804 church on the corner of State and Washington streets.

They have plans to renovate the new downtown campus of buildings, remodeling the main sanctuary to accommodate a growing congregation. They also want to renovate the old bank offices into facilities that will provide space for community groups and nonprofits.

The churches already provide space for clinics on immigration, for a regional youth wrestling league and offices and meeting space for Higher Edge, an innovative and successful program that is helping high school students get into and succeed in college.

They hope to offer the former bank lobby, a big space opening on State Street, as a community gathering space.

And they expect their plans for the neighborhood will blend well with the proposed National Coast Guard Museum downtown and the new Garde Arts Center across the street, which is now slated to become a regional arts magnet high school.

"The church is in a position to help and influence the city," said Martino. "We have a vision to help New London."

In the short term, the new church will use both campuses. In the long term, they may sell or use the Redden Avenue building for other purposes.

Imminent renovation plans call for a new roof on the downtown church, connecting the church building with the old bank and bringing the sanctuary up to code, to accommodate larger services.

The pastors also say they plan to make some payments in lieu of taxes to the city for the former bank building.

The building is assessed at around $3 million and had a tax bill of about $70,000, Hogsten said, which is perhaps one of the reasons the church was able to buy it, and a parking lot on Washington Street, for only $240,000.

They have begun talks with the city about what might be a fair voluntary contribution, since the building, which was assessed as a lucrative commercial property, is clearly worth much closer to what they paid for it than its assessment.

It is laudable that the pastors and their congregations have chosen to pursue a voluntary tax payment.

The highly paid, insensitive managers of the city's colleges and hospitals should take note. If the members of a struggling church congregation in a small, poor city can try to pay their share, so can the rich institutions that are taking a free ride.

The church is both contributing to the community as well as trying to help pay the cost of vital services like police and public works.

"We are demonstrating that in a small city like New London, the only way to move forward is arm in arm," Hogsten said about his church's plan to breathe new community energy into the downtown. "New London is not going to work if everyone just does their own thing."

Amen.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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