Greater Ebenezer Baptist Church at Ninth Street and Dutton Avenue has stood its ground as developers bought land all around it, promising the arrival soon of two new hotels, a retail strip and restaurants. It even said thanks but no thanks when representatives of Wal-Mart offered to buy the building the 101-year-old congregation occupies.
The Rev. Kerry Burkley, who serves as pastor, said despite what the public may have heard, the church never received an offer it thought was adequate, considering the rich history of Greater Ebenezer, its roots in the neighborhood across Interstate 35 from Baylor University and what it invested in a new home in 2009.
“We will continue to show up and worship the Lord,” Burkley said when asked about the banging of hammers next door that accompanies construction and the arrival of drive-thru windows at eateries and new places to spend the night. “It’s kind of intriguing to see what arrives next, and it could prove to be another field of outreach.”
Acres of land between South 10th and 11th streets near I-35 found new owners two weeks ago, marking the consummation of four years of negotiations involving developers Shane and Cody Turner, Waco restaurateur Sammy Citrano and real estate agent Bland Cromwell, along with others who have assembled the parcels between South Ninth and South 11th streets, from I-35 to Cleveland Avenue.
In the midst of this commercial boom sits Greater Ebenezer, which attracts about 120 worshippers to its lively Sunday morning services.
Already, members can hear the roar of big rigs and heavy traffic on the nearby interstate, but the noise does not quench their spirit. Owners of nearby homes have sold their property to the developers, their homes becoming fodder for bulldozers that reduce them to mounds of lumber.
Still, Greater Ebenezer stands firm, like the solid rock on which it was built, Burkley said.
“God has us here until he tells us to move,” he said.
Cromwell said he and others negotiated with the leadership of Greater Ebenezer until it became obvious the church didn’t want to sell for what they were offering.
“We offered to buy the church and were willing to include another tract of land at another location on which they could build,” Cromwell said. “It was not as if we said, ‘We will give you this amount of money.’ It was a convoluted deal. We met with them twice, as I recall, and there were some differences of opinion. There was a lot of sentimental value attached to that church, but we offered what I considered a fair number, a big number, but we just could not get it done.”
Cromwell said Wal-Mart indeed was interested in placing a store on that site, but he did not recall mentioning that fact to the congregation.
Citrano, a member of a partnership that acquired land near Greater Ebenezer, said he distinctly recalls telling the church about Wal-Mart’s desire to build there.
“We offered to build them a new church at a different location and to pay off all debt on their existing church, which was a lot,” Citrano said. “But they thought their property was worth more than all the other property along three streets combined. They would not change their minds.”
Citrano declined to say exactly how much the deal would have been worth to Greater Ebenezer but confirmed it would have well exceeded $1 million.
“Wal-Mart was interested, which is the only reason we could offer what we did,” Citrano said. “But it’s all over and behind us, and I don’t want to make anybody mad over this. I need prayers, not enemies. It’s all good, and I think what we will see going up in that area is great.”
Burkley, the church’s pastor, declined to comment on the offer the church received and which its deacons prayerfully considered. He said Greater Ebenezer is familiar with the trials involved in methodically acquiring parcels of land, as it spent decades closing deals to accommodate a new worship site.
“We finally amassed enough to do what we did in 2009, and that is to move into our new building, which is about 65 feet from our old one,” Burkley said.
Elroy Cross, a deacon at Greater Ebenezer, said he spent countless hours combing through records to figure out who owned tracts the church needed to expand.
“One businessman owned a piece of land right in the middle of where we wanted to build and he demanded an outrageous price to get it, but we had to do what we had to do,” Cross said. “We have a lot of history here, a lot that people outside the congregation may not care about. . . . I-35 is a blessing to Waco, but that does not mean we have to pack up and leave because we’re right next to it.
“We have had offers, but have we really been tempted to sell? No. Most of the people who spoke with us were truthful and straightforward, but the idea of someone looking us in the face and suggesting the church didn’t mean a whole lot to them, that they were more interested in the property, that was kind of a turnoff.”
Cross said he’s not sure what it would take for the church to take an offer seriously and it’s a difficult question to consider.
“There are some that would be worth praying about, I’ll put it that way,” he said. “But I kind of doubt we’ll be seeing any more offers. I think they’re about finished with us.”
Burkley said most of the people who attend Greater Ebenezer do not live in the immediate neighborhood.
“We are a majority black congregation, but our doors are open to anyone who may want to worship with us,” he said. “We’re right across the highway from Baylor University, and we welcome Baylor students. The church is 101 years old, and we’ve been meeting at this location 91 years.”
Land transactions near the church already have produced a new Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, a new Panera Bread and a Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers. Meanwhile, site preparation has begun on a Waco branch of McGregor-based TFNB Your Bank for Life.
Deals that recently closed involved 11th Street Partnership, a group that includes Citrano, the Turner brothers and others who sold acreage nearest I-35 to yet another partnership that includes brothers Shane and Cody Turner. Hotelier Raju Patel acquired a tract near Cleveland Avenue on which he will place a 110-room La Quinta del Sol, which he described as a top-tier concept of La Quinta. The dealing means another hotel developer, as yet unidentified, controls a tract next to Patel’s.
Burkley, meanwhile, said apartments and townhomes, including Tinsley Place, going up near the church only strengthen its resolve to stay put.
“We will meet new folks and express the relationship we have with our Lord,” he said. “They are now our neighbors in an excellent town.”