GENEVA — The choices weren’t good for Trinity Episcopal Church.
The magnificent house of worship on South Main Street was built to seat up to 400 faithful on any given Sunday. But in recent years, those numbers suffered a precipitous decline. Church membership has dwindled to less than 50.
The troubling membership numbers, combined with well over $1 million in needed building repairs, left the church in a quandary over its future.
In February, a date of Nov. 1 was set by which to determine the church’s fate, and it has.
Trinity has decided to enter into an agreement with a Toronto-based developer to take the massive building and its multiple rooms and transform it into a multiple-use site featuring an inn with 28 rooms, a restaurant on the lower level, and converting the spectacular sanctuary into an event space that can accommodate up to 200 people.
Under the arrangement, the church would continue to hold services there, as well as offices, said Cameron Miller, rector of Trinity, who was hired in part to help the church determine its future.
Miller said the project by Mark McGroarty Investments was one of two options church leaders considered. The other was to convert the building into apartments, though that was decided against because “It just would not have generated enough income for us to continue,” Miller said.
McGroarty has experience in adaptive re-use of churches. He is doing a similar project in Buffalo, where Miller spent many years leading an Episcopal Church.
McGroarty holds dual citizenship in the United States and his native Canada but spent many years doing historical rehabilitation in the States, including many years in South Carolina.
Developer sold on Geneva
Miller and other church leaders met with McGroarty in Buffalo and asked him to visit Trinity.
He was sold.
“I fell in love with the whole area,” McGroarty said by phone from Toronto, where he lives. “I just see such an upside in your area.”
Under the arrangement, which still needs approval from the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, a limited liability company will be created, with the church the principle entity. McGroarty’s company would enter into a long-term lease with the LLC, and he would operate and maintain the facility.
“The church will maintain ownership of the property,” said McGroarty. “It is not being sold.”
In order for the project to move ahead, a number of legal and procedural approvals are needed. For one, the church will need state Supreme Court approval to remove the tax-exempt status of the property.
Representatives also must go before the city’s zoning and planning boards for approval, as well as gain county Planning Board approval. McGroarty hopes that all the approvals will be completed by the end of February. He hopes to complete the project by July 2018.
McGroarty said his group also will seek federal and state historic tax credits to help pay for renovations. They’re hoping that the tax credits will provide $1.75 million to $2 million to help defray extensive renovation costs. He said they’ll also seek some sort of “tax relief” in the initial years.
Church redevelopment not new
Finding new uses for old churches is not a new thing, said McGroarty and Miller. McGroarty provided a number of samples around the nation where tasteful re-uses brought new life to buildings that otherwise would have been shuttered.
That was the prospect facing Trinity, Miller said.
“The alternative (to adaptive re-use of churches) is worse,” said McGroarty. “Nobody wants to see a boarded-up church.”
Miller said the congregation is “very excited about the option of staying in the building,” saying church offices will move to a spot in the basement, while services will be held on the sanctuary altar, where the choir pews will be removed. Special carvings on the pews depicting church history will be removed from the pews and saved, said Miller.
Miller indicated that down the line Trinity would be best served by another facility more tailored to the needs of today, noting that regular Sunday worship has been dropping for years at churches in any number of denominations.
While McGroarty said he has no experience running an inn, events center or restaurant, he has people in place ready to do the job in Geneva. He has not settled on a name of the new establishment.
He said the site will compete favorably with some well-known establishments just down the road — Geneva on the Lake and Belhurst. And the unique project will be a draw, he believes.
“There’s always a market for the unusual,” he said.