NICHOLASVILLE — Southland Christian Church has a contract to buy the defunct Lexington Mall property and plans to open a church there "to serve more of the community."
The church's pastor, Jon Weece, ripped duct tape off his mouth at Saturday night's service to announce the pending deal to members of the mega-church's congregation, saying, "Finally, they've given me permission to talk about it."
The deal is not final, as the church has a 60-day due diligence period with Maryland-based Saul Centers, which has owned the property since 1974, the year before the mall opened. The church then has an additional 120 days to present its development plan to city officials for approval, said Kurt Braun, Southland's executive director of finance and administration.
In the unlikely event the plan were to be rejected, Southland could back out of the deal.
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The mall has been in disrepair since Dillard's closed in 2005.
"We never set out to be at that location, but the more we took steps towards it, the more open doors we discovered and the more we realized, 'As scary as this is, God did not call us to live by fear. God called us to live by faith,'" Weece said Saturday night, in announcing the plans to the congregation.
Southland has hired EOP Architects to begin designing its new campus buildings at Richmond Road and New Circle Road.
"We are excited to see how God will guide us through this process as we move forward with this additional location," Weece said in a news release. "Our mission is to share joy, hope and healing with others, through our love of God and people."
The release said that terms and conditions of the transaction are confidential and will not be made public. However, final property transfers are public record.
The deal includes all of Saul Centers' property in Lexington, which totals 31.2 acres, according to property records. The property, which is divided into four parcels, has a total assessed value of $10.7 million, according to Fayette property records. The property includes the space on which the Perkins and Applebee's restaurants sit, though it does not include property owned by The Home Depot and Central Bank.
Cheryl Feigel, the council member representing the fifth district in which Lexington Mall is located, said that "We've been waiting for many, many years to have a face lift to Lexington Mall."
Craig Avery, the chairman of the church's board, said it is unclear how long it might be before the new church opens or how much of the existing mall will remain intact after renovation.
"We may tear down part of it. We may build something back," Avery said.
The church has been negotiating with Saul Centers, the property's owner, since February, Weece said.
He said the mall property, which is already zoned to accommodate a church, has more square footage than the church's main location at 5001 Harrodsburg Road in Jessamine County.
The Harrodsburg Road location attracts about 10,000 people a week for services. Southland also opened a church in Danville last year. Weece said that location draws about 600 people to its services each weekend.
He said Southland spent two years trying to obtain the vacant Winn-Dixie property on Virginia Avenue but was ultimately unsuccessful.
Weece urged those present on Saturday evening to pray about joining the 2,000 people who will be needed to help start the new church.
"Take a deep breath because it will take all of us working together to pull it off," he said.
He also asked the congregation to visit the vacant property and nearby restaurants, including Perkins and Applebee's, on Saturday night.
"Let's start loving that area of the city by taking care of the waiters and waitresses who work there," he said. "And take a moment to drive around the mall and pray. And as you drive around the old Lexington Mall, my prayer for you is that you will see people and not buildings. I look forward to the journey and can't imagine what God has in store for us next."
Weece said he'll divulge more of the church's plans for reaching more of the city during a sermon series beginning July 24 and 25.
The new church at Lexington Mall would have sermons piped in via video from the Harrodsburg Road location, but music and all other aspects of worship would be live, he said in an interview.
That's the way worship is conducted in Danville now, Weece said. He said the video teaching segments create unity within the church by allowing everyone to hear the same message.
"It keeps all of us on the same page," he said.
Southland started in Lexington in 1956. Its first senior pastor, Wayne Smith, was in the audience at Saturday night's services.
Another former pastor, Mike Breaux, delivered the sermon Saturday night before Weece made the announcement about the Lexington Mall property.
"Southland's always had a heart for loving people beyond the walls," he said in an interview. "This really, really thrills me."
He said the new location meets "the needs of all kinds of people."
Mike Scanlon, who is president and CEO of Thomas & King, which owns the Applebee's at the site, said "I couldn't imagine having a better neighbor" than Southland.
Thomas & King owns the restaurant building, and has a long-term lease with Saul on the property on which it sits, he said.
Braun said the lease will also continue for Perkins, but noted that Southland has no interest in serving as a landlord.
"We'll look for someone who has that interest to potentially take over those," he said.