An Akron building that housed one of the nation's first megachurches is up for sale for a second time in less than a year.

It's been a historic past few years for the 263,000-square-foot former Akron Baptist Temple on Manchester Road in Kenmore, especially this past year. The three-sanctuary complex with two baseball fields, a day care, indoor basketball court and acoustics that rival E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall (with seating capacity for 1,000 more people) has been shared by a young, growing black church and a historically white church that's finally stopped shrinking.

With limited options for reuse and a county appraisal of nearly $5.4 million, Akron Baptist Temple sold the church and its 29 acres last June for $1.5 million then stayed there for 10 months before rebooting this month as Connect Church in Coventry Township.

The sale expanded The Word Church's network of nondenominational televangelism locations in renovated retail and recreational space in Warrensville Heights, Cleveland and Akron, where the church started on Sundays in North High School about seven years ago.

Now, The Word Church has two locations in Akron but not enough members to fill both. Senior pastor and founder the Rev. R.A. Vernon said Akron membership peaked at 1,000 on Easter Sunday then dipped slightly in the move to Kenmore, where Sunday service is now held. More Akron members are still attending Wednesday Bible school in Chapel Hill.

Vernon said he's concerned that his 10,000 members in the Cleveland area are subsidizing the expansion in Akron, where he can't break a ballooning lease on Brittain Road.

And, so, a year after surprising his congregations with the purchase of a church with a segregated past, The Word Church is selling the Manchester Road location for $3.9 million.

 

'Leave the history'

Akron Baptist Temple founder Dallas Billington, who died in 1972, routinely rejected the notion that his church ever harbored racist feelings.

It supported mission work to India and Africa, he told the Beacon Journal in 1970, but did not give financially to the Akron Chapter of the NAACP, as many other churches did at the time. “Our people are predominantly of Southern heritage," said Billington, referencing Appalachian migrants who settled Akron around the church. “We have colored folks who come here from time to time, but they usually come once and don’t return.

“They just don’t seem to feel as welcome here,” the church leader said.

Bishop Joey Johnson of House of the Lord in West Akron, who inspired Vernon to start The Word Church in 2000, said he was aware of a decades-old incident involving a black visitor to Akron Baptist Temple. "A deacon came over and tapped him on the shoulder. He said, ‘You can stay till the end of the service, but don’t come back,’” Johnson said.

Founded in 1934 with 13 members meeting on Sundays in Reimer School, Akron Baptist Temple grew to embrace radio then television, outliving the austerity of wartime and criticism for its fundamentalist doctrine. It boasted the “world’s largest Sunday school” in the 1960s and more than 4,000 members a decade earlier.

It's a staple footnote in most research on the origin of megachurches.

But attendance started to slip in the early 1960s, all the way to 2007 when the Rev. Ed Holland, now at Connect Church, took the pulpit.

The megachurch property is actually seven buildings stitched together. The 4,000-seat main sanctuary and its white spire burned to the ground in 1981, two years after its dedication. Fire investigators suspected but could never prove arson.

That 4,000-seat sanctuary, rebuilt in 1983, is the newest of the conjoined buildings visible from state Route 224 east of the Kenmore leg.

Vernon surprised his congregation with the purchase of the property. His team, as they often do, videotaped the day he offered it to them. They wept with joy, he said. Vernon took that to mean everyone approved.

In hindsight, he said only half would now stay if he polled them. He now wishes he'd asked their opinion before quietly consulting with church elders and his board of directors.

On a recent tour (also videotaped), Vernon led a reporter and photographer into Billington’s old office. Studded leather stretched over ornate wooden chairs. A thick Bible laid on the founder’s desk — his weathered briefcase sat in the corner.

“One of the things I told our team is let’s leave the history,” Vernon said.

In one of the framed photographs covering the waiting room outside Billington’s old office, Vernon pointed to 4,000 white people in the main sanctuary circa 1980s. He smiled. The black pastor from Cleveland has the mirror image, taken last year of 4,000 black worshippers in the same space.

He wants to put the pictures side by side somewhere, maybe online.

It was fittingly Father’s Day when The Word Church's digital marketing crew snapped the photo. Vernon, who considered himself a “father” and his congregation the "children," closed his campuses in Warrensville Heights and Cleveland for the day and threw open the doors to the gift he’d bought them.

“We said, ‘All roads lead to Akron,’” he said.

A promotional video of the grand opening featured Holland happy to know prayer would continue in the church and Vernon talking about how the music would never stop.

 

The sale

Holland never thought to offer the church to Vernon.

After putting his megachurch on the market, the last pastor at Akron Baptist Temple had driven several times by The Word Church, located in an old furniture store beside the Chapel Hill Mall. The vibrant paint job, lighting and fresh look gave the impression that the pastor preaching there also owned the building.

But Vernon had nearly five years left on the lease. That didn't stop him from taking a look over on Manchester Road. Just after feeding the poor and broadcasting his sermons to jail inmates, Vernon said he considers growth through buying and fixing up churches essential to the mission.

So, he negotiated Holland down from $3.3 to $1.5 million. “Here’s an offer I can’t refuse,” Vernon said. “I’m in a conundrum. So, we said, ‘we have to try.'”

Ten months of amicable coexistence ensued. Holland said The Word Church “was beyond gracious and kind” in letting his members stay while renovating their new Connect Church at 578 Killian Road in Coventry Township. They’d bought the 1985 church from the Free Methodists for $750,000 in July, a month after selling to The Word Church.

Vernon put his flare on the old Akron Baptist Temple. “Anytime you move into a new place, you’ve got to put your flavor on it,” Vernon said, standing in a smaller sanctuary he uses to record sermons beneath LED lighting, a fresh sound system and two new control booths perched above a sound-insulated baby crying room — all originally designed and now modified for optimal broadcasting quality. “We’re on TV.”

Vernon can take the sound system with him if he finds a buyer. But he knows there’s no local church big enough to fill 263,000 square feet of worship space.

And he’ll have to leave the new carpet, freshly painted walls and Word Church logos in a gray “W” and red arrow swooshing up toward the heavens.

There are three sanctuaries, a day care and a teen outreach center, which includes another broadcast-quality stage, a movie projection room with recliners and an arcade. Vernon moved mothballs, opening wings like the naturally lit, full-size basketball court, installing new rims and nets and turning up the thermostat on the existing showers and separate locker rooms for men and women.

The usage has increased utility costs, which Holland told the Beacon Journal in 2015 had averaged $167,000 a year.

Vernon said he’s “tried everything” — including subleasing — to get out of the last 3½ years of his lease on Brittain Road. Investing $2 million in that building initially lowered his monthly payments. Now, the rent is starting to balloon.

“We have the good problem of too many buildings,” he said, describing his real estate predicament as “an embarrassment of riches.”

Ed Matzules, vice president of Colliers International, is handling the sale.

He's targeting developers of senior living or retail, grocery and other mixed uses. It's got to be a mix of smaller options, he said, because the residential neighborhood, despite highway access, is not the best location for big stores that are expanding like Menards or Meijer.

Matzules said he's met with the city and local councilman to see if the property, which is not in a development-incentivized federal opportunity zone, could be sweetened with local tax breaks for a buyer who converts the church into senior housing or assisted living.

The retail option would require demolition, which could be costly. Still, Matzules said new housing could go behind the church near or on top of the baseball fields.

"I'd like to make it something other than a church," said Matzules, who can be reached at 330-697-4192.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.