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060918-adh-nws-Cumberland Presbyterian Church-my

The Albany City Council Monday night approved seeking a buyer for the historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church, preferably someone willing to work with a community group to restore it, not tear it down. 

The Albany City Council on Monday gave Parks & Recreation Director Ed Hodney the authority to talk with potential buyers of the historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church at the corner of Santiam Road and Main Street and asked Hodney to report back in two weeks.

In addition, the council asked Hodney to seek a buyer who is willing not only to move the 126-year-old structure but also to work with the Willamette River East Neighborhood, a group of community volunteers that hopes to save the building and turn it into a community center, wedding and reunion venue and educational site.

The lone dissenter on the council was Bessie Johnson, who advocated tearing down the 2,400-square-foot building, which is in disrepair. She argued that proceeds from the sale of any valuable structural timbers should be returned to the city. 

The city purchased the building in 2000 for $150,000 as part of a road construction project that never came to fruition. 

The council has struggled with the fate of the church — which supporters said has housed numerous congregations over its many decades of use — and what it would cost to move it and then renovate it.

The building’s roof has been patched numerous times and continuing to do so is no longer viable, explained Chris Bailey of the Public Works Department.

But Jill Van Buren and Emma Eaton of the Willamette River East Neighborhood said the building is one of only three churches of its architectural style left in the city.

They said 400 Albany residents signed an online petition to save the church and that their group is committed to taking on a fundraising program to renovate the structure if the city would commit to moving it.

An architect and two contractors have told the women they would volunteer their skills toward the project.

“Breathing new life back into this building will remind the people that Albany is committed to its historic buildings,” Van Buren said.

The church has been empty for 18 years and it and the grounds are in need of maintenance, all agreed.

But even those who believe the building should be saved are aware that the city has other pressing financial needs, specifically what Councilor Rich Kellum called a “$50 million hole” in its street repair fund.

After more than an hour of public testimony and comments from councilors at Monday's work session, Hodney said he believes the question came down to whether the council members believe the building has enough historic value to overcome its repair issues.

“Is it a building worth saving?” he asked.

He also reminded the council that maintaining “the status quo” is not acceptable, because time is taking its toll on the building and the property in general.

Councilman Ray Kopczynski believes the building has value and pledged the first $1,000 toward its renovation if the Willamette River East Neighborhood can become a nonprofit organization to tackle the project.

Councilor Dick Olsen said that he has lived in a home that is older than the church for more than 40 years. He admitted it takes maintenance, but added that even the city’s newer buildings such as City Hall and the new downtown fire station, all require regular maintenance.

He suggested that the renovation project might well be financed through CARA (Central Albany Revitalization Area) funding.

Councilor Mike Sykes said the community has long supported major building projects such as the Boys & Girls Club additions and the new YMCA, with only schematics and artist’s drawings as a calling card.

“They will need a strong vision, but it can work,” Sykes said.

Mayor Sharon Konopa reminded the council that the historic carousel struggled to get forward momentum until the city stepped in and helped get a conceptual drawing on paper.

Konopa added that no matter what happens, the city has a responsibility to clean up the property just as the city expects homeowners to do.

The council's consensus was that the building should be moved and renovated, not torn down or burned, but also that the time had come to "quit kicking the can down the road," as Konopa said.

Councilor Bill Coburn — while also wary of spending city money on the project — said his goal is to find a potential buyer who wants to see a “win-win-win” opportunity for themselves, the city and the Willamette River East Neighborhood.

Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.