A Waco couple plans to restore a historic church, bringing a new restaurant and event venue space to downtown.
Lane and Amy Murphy with 2nd and Clay LLC, who have lived in Waco for 18 years bought Saint James United Methodist Church from its congregation in 2016.
"When we first walked in, we felt this place was special," Lane said. "This is the only building with a state marker in downtown that has to do with black history that still exists so we thought that was even more special."
According to the Texas Historical Commissioner marker, Father Anderson Brack organized the church in 1874, which served as a place of worship and school for the African-American community. The congregation built several sanctuaries before completing work on the building in 1924.
St. James United Methodist Church Lay Leader Jimmy Ewing said the congregation with 30 members at the time moved to another location at 3311 Park Lake Drive after the sale.
"It got to a point that we couldn't even pay the insurance, especially with only a handful of members so we had to do the best interest of the church," Ewing said.
Ewing is supportive of the restoration of Murphy's plan to do the church building.
"It's a memento to the City of Waco," Ewing said. "This area is always full of visitors so it's a good thing."
The project would restore the fellowship basement of the building and transition this space into a 5,500 square foot concept destination restaurant.
In addition, there will be improvements to accessibility, landscaping, sidewalks and parking. The second phase of the project would focus on the historic preservation of the building's exterior and sanctuary. It would be converted into a venue with a 500 seating capacity.
Other than for private events, the couple plans to offer the venue space at a free or discounted price for community events.
In order to make the restoration possible, the couple asked the Tax Increment Financing Board of Directors for Reinvestment Zone Number One for $870,075 for public improvements, including a lift for accessibility, new sidewalks, new lighting and other needed repairs.
TIF funding, which aims to facilitate development, comes from property tax revenue from areas, such as downtown, that is over a base value set by local taxing entities.
On Thursday, the advisory board toured the building while the couple explained the repairs needed.
Lakeshore United Methodist Church member Ramona Curtis who visited St. James United Methodist Church throughout her life joined the tour.
The 57-year-old remembers going there for vacation bible school, weddings and funerals.
"This church means so much to me as a United Methodist," Curtis said. "I was hoping there was some kind of way, that it would survive the new development and preserve this piece of history."
The TIF board, which is an advisory board to the city, recommended giving only $531,185 for the project. It also encouraged the Baylor University faculty members to apply for tax incentives at the state and local level.
The couple remains committed to going ahead with the project.
"It's a leap of faith for us to do this project. We know this bigger than us and we are relying on other people to make it happen because this is not about the Murphys. This about Waco," Lane said.
The restoration and repair of the historic church is anticipated to take 18 months. The restaurant is expected to be completed by September 2019.
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