This weekend marks a new beginning for a piece of property often criticized as one of Lexington's worst eyesores.
The former Lexington Mall reopens Saturday as the home to Southland Christian Church's third campus, a project more than two years in the making.
"It's just been exciting. I don't know how else to say it," said director of campus operations Jim Cox, who oversaw the construction and renovation. "It's been exciting to see how God has worked and made the path very clear on what we're supposed to do."
Southland is also gearing up for another challenge, as leaders expect to spend 2013 deciding where to build a fourth campus.
Building with a vision
When Southland completed the $8.1 million purchase of the mall property in 2010, the property had been in disrepair since Dillard's closed in 2005. The church decided to demolish the mall portion of the property but renovated the Dillard's building.
Ministries for children, middle schoolers and high schoolers, as well as offices and other meeting space upstairs, take up 97,000 square feet of the Dillard's location. An additional 46,000 square feet of the building have been left unfinished to leave room for expansion as the church grows.
The church then built and attached a 52,000-square-foot auditorium for worship services on the end where the mall had been. It seats around 2,000 and has an unfinished balcony that will help eventually accommodate up to 2,800.
"It's been challenging," Cox said. "But I don't know that I'll ever understand all of the rewards."
Despite the building's size, church leaders worked to make it feel compact. Stretching the length of the building is a walking area with ministries located off to the sides.
Church leaders attributed the features to a vision night held last year at the Richmond Road site that saw about 800 members "paint the vision for the campus," said campus director Gary Black.
Black also spent a great deal of time visiting and talking with ministers at other churches with multiple sites.
"Hopefully, we'll avoid making some mistakes along the way because we spent some time learning on the front end of it," he said.
Black is a long-tenured minister within the church and was a senior minister before that — traits that Southland wanted for its newest location's leader, said lead executive pastor Chris Hahn.
Those were lessons learned from the church's first satellite campus in Danville, he said, where they renovated a former Lowe's store and began services within just three months.
"After we had launched Danville, we looked back and evaluated and said, 'With the next campus, we want to have more time,'" Hahn said. "Thankfully, with the construction side of this alone, we got it."
While the Danville campus pastor got a "crash course" in the site's leadership, Black has been in place overseeing Richmond Road for about a year.
"He's been able to prepare and get our staff prepared," Hahn said.
Black and others — the equivalent of 16 full-time employees on site — will lead the majority of the services. Music will be performed live. But, like at Southland's Danville campus, the message will be delivered via video from Harrodsburg Road.
Church leaders have said it's vital the message offered weekly be the same to keep church members on the same proverbial page despite their different locations.
To make it feel less like a video message, the church has installed a projection screen that's so large it will appear as if church leader Jon Weece is life-size.
To help kick off the new site, church leaders have asked 2,000 members at the Harrodsburg Road site to spend a year at Richmond Road. Hahn said around 1,800 have committed to do so.
"There are a lot of folks who live in Hamburg and who live in this community here who do make the drive to Harrodsburg Road," he said.
The goal, though, is to grow the church with visitors from around the Richmond Road area.
Michelle Frank, director of campus ministry at Richmond Road, said it helps that the church is in such a prominent location with so many neighborhoods nearby.
"From a real estate perspective, they say location, location, location," she said. "For us, it's opportunity, opportunity, opportunity.
"Our other campuses are destination campuses, and this is a landmark campus."
Black added the Richmond Road area is "multicultural, multigenerational and has a lot of diversity."
"We like the church to look like the community," he said.
The addition of Richmond Road will have another effect on the main Harrodsburg Road church. Harrodsburg Road will now have two, instead of three, Sunday morning services in its main auditorium.
"There are a number of weekends every year where it gets a little uncomfortably full in the 10 o'clock service," said Kurt Braun, executive director of finance and administration.
Service times at 9:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. Sunday at Harrodsburg Road will give more time, Braun said, for worshipers from the earlier service to leave the parking lot.
"Right now, there are times that it's a little stressful in the parking lot," he said.
With the change, all three churches will have main services at 9:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., with Saturday evening services also held at Harrodsburg Road and Richmond Road.
Planning for the future
Southland's decision to buy the property at Richmond Road came as part of a campaign that hopes to see Southland bring 10,000 people to worship by Jan. 1, 2017, at five satellite campuses. That goal was set to essentially double the number who weekly call the Harrodsburg Road site their spiritual home.
The campaign had its roots in discussions the church's leaders had a few years back as they began to evaluate what would happen as Southland's numbers grew from 8,000 weekly to 10,000.
The leaders determined that "we really had been focusing internally," Hahn previously told the Herald-Leader, and that they needed to look to grow outside Harrodsburg Road. They decided to take cues from other churches around the nation that have begun using satellite campuses.
With two of the five satellite campuses now completed, Hahn said church leaders "really feel like in this year that we'll figure out what the next location will be."
"We don't know if it will be another regional site or another on the other side of Lexington," he said.
One decision that's already been made for 2013 is to launch an online service. While the church has a televised service, it's on a week's delay, Hahn said, and it is also edited for time constraints.
"We want to use this to invite people to one of the campuses," he said.
Scott Sloan: (859) 231-1447. Twitter: @HeraldLeaderBiz