BRADLEY BEACH — More than a year after the borough purchased the former First United Methodist Church on LaReine Avenue, members of the governing body finally sat down in an open meeting to discuss the future of the building that some would like to turn into a community center.
In a 45-minute workshop discussion on July 13, members seemed divided over the prospect of hiring an engineering firm to provide an analysis on the cost of returning the historic building, more than a century old, to working order.
The point of contention for some on the dais was an instruction to analyze the cost of repairing the building to its former use as a church rather than what it would cost to turn it into a community center.
“There has been a very long history of inactivity since we purchased this building and it has been a major source of frustration for me personally. I know others in the community would be in favor of at least making a decision, done way or the other,” Council President Al Gubitosi said, adding that the borough now has the opportunity to finally decide a way forward, with the intention of considering bonding to do certain elements of work on the building.
The council president said the cost could run at a couple hundred thousand dollars, adding that “It sounds like a lot of money, but it is something that is necessary to do for the building, whether or not we proceed with a community center or sell the building to a developer.”
At the start of the workshop discussion, Mayor Larry Fox said there “has been little done on this project since 2020.” In March, a group was set up to examine options for the church, which included full remediation of mold, lead and asbestos, and renovating it into a community center; assessing the uses of the site and looking for other places in the borough and other facilities that could fit those needs; selling the property; and looking into an outside entity interested in purchasing the site and developing it.
The mayor said the borough could not get an adequate cost estimate for remediating the building and reconstructing it into a community center, which led the borough down a path to providing an assessment of what it would take to make the building safe for the public.
“What that means is remediation and structural changes that we would need to bring this into a safe mode. From there we would assess the overall cost of what we need to proceed,” the mayor said.
Mr. Gubitosi said he would feel uncomfortable spending $81,000 for the borough to commission T&M Associates to do an analysis of the building, which would not include a cost estimate of turning the building into a community center.
“What we, the borough, have so far engaged T&M to consider is doing an evaluation that at the end of the day … would be to restore this building to a functioning church … and not a community center,” he said. “My personal opinion on this is I would much prefer our engineers to provide a proposal which would very specifically address improving the building … with the specifications of a community center.”
“In my mind, I think the issue is this church becomes a community center or this church is leveled and the property is subdivided and we put housing on it,” he said, adding that if the property was subdivided into residential housing it would add $8 million in ratables to the town and add roughly $35,000 in tax revenue a year to the borough.
Mayor Fox responded by saying that if the borough commissioned a study on the cost to return the building back to a “safe mode,” it would be faster than assessing the building’s feasibility as a community center, which would require an architect, engineer and plan specifications.
“My concern is that if this estimate comes back at $5 million to come back to a safe mode without the initial systems, do we pause at that point and say we can not proceed with this,” he said.
Councilman Tim Sexsmith said that it would be worth engaging T&M to do a structural assessment on the building and at the same time, engage an architect to create a concept plan for a community center.
“We are working in parallel at this point instead of working in series, and then at the end of the eight weeks we’ll know if we are going to do something with this building and we will have a concept plan that we can move forward with,” he said.
Council Randy Bonnell said the borough should look at similar projects, such as in Long Branch, where a historic church was turned into a community center.
Due to dwindling church attendance over the years, the church shut down services in 2014 and fell into disrepair. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association took over the deed to the church and planned to sell it to a housing developer, who would demolish the structure and build homes on the property.
But in 2019, the borough stepped in to purchase the church and officials are currently reviewing possibilities of what to do with the building, including turning it into a community center.
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