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Longtime Huntington church building on the auction block

Dec. 09, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- A church building that has served the Highlawn Baptist congregation since 1948 will be sold to the highest bidder Thursday.

The building at 2788 Collis Ave. will be auctioned off by Riverbend USA LLC in conjunction with A.B. Cole and Associates at the Holiday Inn and Suites on 3rd Avenue in Huntington at noon.

An ongoing online auction of various items -- including padded pews, kitchen equipment and the church organ -- that began Friday will conclude Saturday, Dec. 14.

A phone message left with the church was not returned, and sources said the building hasn't been in regular use for a few months.

The congregation's senior pastor, Ricky Ray, posted an open letter to "all concerned about the future of Highlawn Baptist Church" on Facebook in October saying the building would be auctioned off because the church could no longer afford to maintain it.

Ray claimed a building designed to seat 1,100 people -- which is confirmed in the auction description -- was averaging about 101 attendees each Sunday, and that the church was spending 68 percent of its income on maintenance and utilities.

He said the church had shifted its focus to planting multiple, smaller churches in the community and that plan has been very successful.

The post sparked 72 responses, some supportive of the church's new direction and others deeply angered that the building was to be auctioned.

Whatever the status of the congregation may be, it appears church officials had been planning on getting rid of the building for some time.

On June 24, 2013, church members attended a City of Huntington Planning Commission meeting in which they sought to have the church's zoning status changed from residential to commercial.

According to the minutes of that meeting, Rick Flesher of Huntington presented a petition on behalf of the church for the proposed change.

Flesher said he believed the property would be more marketable if it were zoned for commercial use.

He gave the argument that Ray would later echo, saying the building was simply too big to be supported by a dwindling number of parishioners.

Two attendees of the meeting spoke in favor of the change.

Eight attendees spoke out against the petition for rezoning, according to the minutes, most pointing out that Highlawn is primarily a residential area and expressing concerns of allowing commercial zoning at the church's specific location, which is in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Kenneth Griffith, of the 2700 block of 1st Avenue, said he had heard St. Mary's Medical Center, located just a few blocks away, was interested in the property, and added he was tired of homes in the neighborhood being destroyed by businesses.

City Councilman Gary Bunn, a member of the planning commission and a 50-year Huntington resident, said he believed the neighborhood was stable and that the city needed to remain tough on rezoning. He also added St. Mary's could purchase the property without rezoning.

Flesher never commented during the meeting on whether St. Mary's was a prospective buyer, according to the minutes.

St. Mary's spokeswoman Angela Henderson-Bentley confirmed last week that the hospital did take a look at the property, but decided it would be difficult for anyone to buy it because of its residential zoning status.

The commission unanimously gave the petition an unfavorable ruling, and the proposal was never advanced to City Council.

Highlawn Baptist Church formed in 1914. The current church property consists of 13 parcels of land, including the three-story main building, which has the aforementioned sanctuary that seats 1,100, 115 rooms, classrooms and offices, four kitchens and 19 restrooms. Also included are parking lots and two residences.

Detailed information about the property for sale, as well as details about the auctions, can be found online at ABColeRealty.com or by calling 877-539-9866.

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