Churches praying for big donations

Congregations raising cash to purchase old commercial sites

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Two local churches want to buy vacant commercial properties where they can lift up their neighborhoods while increasing their congregations’ numbers.

In central Vancouver, the pastor of Living Hope Church said his parishioners are transferring millions of dollars in private retirement accounts to a new nonprofit corporation that will buy a former Kmart store.

The Rev. John Bishop said he has about $1.1 million in cash and $3.4 million in pledged investments for the Living Hope Promised Land LLC. Early this year he vowed to raise the $5 million necessary to buy the 10-acre property at 2711 N.E. Andresen Road. His Brush Prairie-based church has been leasing the 85,000-square-foot former store since January.

Meanwhile, the husband-and-wife pastors of North Creek Church on Northeast Highway 99 in Hazel Dell said they’re praying for miraculous millions to buy an abandoned car dealership nearby. They want to bring a positive influence to what they see as a crime-ridden area in need of serious help.

“Hazel Dell is a pocket of crime,” said Stacy Newell, who added that she’s studied the statistics enough to be appalled by the crime rate around Highway 99. “We want to drop a positive influence into this negative environment.”

The Newells — Stacy and husband Mark — have their hearts set on property at 1015 N.E. 78th St., just yards east of the corner of Highway 99. The property offers plenty of parking and a 21,000-square-foot former car dealership — a large main floor plus “lots of little glass offices,” Stacy said, where kids could play games or hold study groups and grownups could hold meetings.

The property is perfect for more than just a church; it could be the community center that Hazel Dell lacks, the Newells said.

The missing piece is money. The Newells are looking to raise $2.5 million to make the purchase.

Where’s it going to come from? “Not a clue,” Mark Newell said.

“We believe someone’s going to give it to us,” Stacy said.

“We’re on a faith journey,” Mark said. News about this building was formally announced to the North Creek Church congregation on Sunday, he said, and the group went down to the site to visit and pray over it in the late afternoon. It’s too early to say much about money collected or pledged, he said.

Hope and ‘Affinity’

Bishop said his Living Hope Church is within a stone’s throw of amassing the funds — cash and pledges — it needs to buy the former Kmart on Andresen Road.

When he first announced the challenge to raise $5 million, he said, not many took the goal too seriously, including property owner Kuni Enterprises, which gave him only a verbal agreement to sell.

Now, Bishop said, there’s a legal purchase-and-sale agreement and a tentative closing date sometime around the end of June. There’s also a grand opening weekend set in advance of that — May 20-21, he said.

“We are in the official process of buying and closing,” he said.

Bishop said a new nonprofit company, the Living Hope Promised Land LLC, is working with a Seattle finance company called Affinity Financing LLC to make it all work. According to its website, Affinity specializes in innovative financing for nonprofits and socially responsible enterprises via “donor-based” financing.

Bishop said members of his congregation who pay in will realize a 5 percent guaranteed return on their investment — which is better than many retirement funds have been doing in recent years. Approximately 100 investors are on board so far, he said.

Surf the Internet and it’s easy to find numerous news stories and alerts about what’s called small-A “affinity fraud.” That means preying upon church members, ethnic minorities, sports clubbers or others who are asked by members of their group to contribute funds for a related cause — like a church building.

Contacted by phone, Chris Walcott of Affinity Financing took pains to say his business is legitimate and the members of Living Hope Promised Land LLC are protected. Affinity Financing brokers many low-cost mortgage loans between banks and nonprofits, he said.

The word “affinity” is appropriate, he said, because what his firm does is work with investors who share passions for certain good causes.

“Our focus is helping the community be more intentional,” Walcott said. “We do humane societies; we do children’s organizations; we do organizations that work with adults with disabilities. Our focus is way beyond faith-based. We work with communities that are passionate about what they are trying to do.

“You can have people taking advantage of the same concept,” he said. He said Affinity will not handle any church funds; it’s simply a go-between. Bank of America will be the mortgage-holder, he said.

Affinity Financing exists, he said, because of the way banks have grown tight-fisted with mortgage loans in the last few years — especially to nonprofits.

“Even when they did (loan to nonprofits), they’d do it at a higher interest rate. It’s the nature of nonprofits to be more risky,” Walcott said.

Bishop said several other Living Hope properties are for sale. There’s been strong interest in the flagship Living Hope campus, 10702 N.E. 117th Ave., and a smaller building in Orchards, he said, but nothing is concrete.

He said Living Hope has grown by about 1,000 members since it moved into the Kmart property in January. The church can fulfill a real community need by providing various social services, like a food bank, he said.

Living Hope Church’s demographic is pretty downscale, Bishop has said.

The Newells of North Creek Church never meant to set down roots in Hazel Dell. About five years ago they started up a little church in rented space at Salmon Creek Elementary School — aimed at the young-adult demographic that Stacy calls the “lost generation.” She means young adults who tend to disappear from church between their teen years and early parenthood, she said.

After a couple of years they started looking for a larger space and came across 6,800 square feet at 10311 N.E. Highway 99. The property’s troubled history as a rowdy bar and nightclub culminated in 2004 with a parking lot stabbing. Police and neighbors were grateful when the church moved in and started drawing local youths with offerings such as foosball, Italian sodas and coffee (hence the nickname “Coffee Church”).

People used to avoid walking in the area, Stacy Newell said, but now they like to stop by.

“It’s not a place where you’d think a young church would grow, but it did,” she said. Attendance is up to 200 at a typical service, Mark Newell said.

Two years later, the Newells have the same vision for that busier, grittier 78th Street corner, a mile to the south of the Coffee Church.

“We like taking old things and renovating them,” Stacy said. “We thought, ‘What if we could take an old piece of junk and make it into something for everybody?’”