Church opens in Columbia, sheds light on area blight

Word of God moves services into abandoned shopping center off Broad River Road January 5, 2013 

— The Word of God Church has invested $5 million in a long-vacant St. Andrews shopping center, transforming a set of retail buildings into a suburban campus.

“What we’re trying to do is return the value to that community,” said Pastor Eric Davis, 44, who preaches his first sermon Sunday in a 2,500-seat sanctuary once housing a Service Merchandise.

“We know the city and county are looking at the revitalization of that area, and we’re hoping our presence fuels that even more.”

Davis and his congregation purchased the 21-acre tract along Diamond Lane, just behind Dutch Square mall, in 2010. The property is off Broad River Road, a declining commercial corridor that Richland County has targeted for redevelopment.

Facilities place Word of God Church and Ministries among a few Columbia-area churches with a broad, community-based ministry.

The main sanctuary, at 78,000 square feet, includes a banquet hall, bookstore and Sunday-school classrooms.

Davis said the church plans programs addressing gangs, domestic violence and drug dependency, among other social ills.

“That’s why we’re here,” he said, “is to affect this community.”

Separate buildings house administrative offices and a row of retail buildings, capped by a fast-food style restaurant that isn’t occupied yet. There also is a separate media arts building for its television and Internet ministry, a recording studio and dance ministry.

The church also has set up two development corporations to improve property nearby.

The restoration of a large, long-vacant property has cheered local-government leaders, who hope it will set a trend. The pastor said curious people have been dropping by since contractors started work.

“That’s specifically been an area the county has targeted where we want to encourage infill, redevelopment and reuse of buildings,” said the county’s planning director, Tracy Hegler. “We certainly want to bring more people to that area.”

Redevelopment makes use of existing water and sewer lines, roads and other costly public amenities, she pointed out.

The pastor, who has an engineering background, said the church paid $2.3 million for buildings that would have cost $15 million to build from the ground up.

Richland Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson said the landscaping and color scheme carried throughout the campus are tasteful.

“It really has brightened that blighted area,” Dickerson said. “They’ve done a beautiful job, renovating.”

Councilman Seth Rose said the presence of the church, coupled with the county’s recent negotiations closing a strip club on Bush River Road nearby, is providing “a huge shot in the arm” to the area.

While the county has not offered any financial incentives to attract new investment to the area, Dickerson said the council will take up a proposal later this month to improve lighting along the Broad River Road corridor.

Tim Lollis, who lives in St. Andrews, said he and other members of the congregation look forward to being part of positive changes coming to the community. “We help add to the spiritual awakening of the area,” he said.

Word of God outgrew its current site at 7355 Garners Ferry Road, where parking was an issue. Word of God Espanol will take up much of that property, Davis said.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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