“It has been said that, at it’s best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”
-William Murtagh, first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

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It was the first test of their commitment to the 2035 plan for Murfresboro’s future growth, and (if you’ll pardon the cliche) city council members passed with flying colors Thursday night.

"These guys must have Murfreesboro 2035 fever."
“These guys must have Murfreesboro 2035 fever.”

They voted unanimously to authorize an offer of $1.55 million for a 1.87-acre parcel in the block bounded by East Lytle, N. Spring, E. College and N.Church Streets. The property has been put up for sale by Franklin Synergy bank, which is constructing a new building  in the city’s gateway district. While that is the bank’s asking price, there is no guarantee some private party might not come along and outbid the city.

The money would come from a funds balance on the city’s books since Murfreesboro has been running budget surpluses at the end of each fiscal year.

A stately 19th Century Church

One of the beauties of the deal is that it offers the best chance of saving all or part of one of the city’s remaining architectural treasures, the First United Methodist Church, built in 1888. While saving the romanesque-style church might be a long shot, preserving its stately bell tower is a definite possibility. Without city ownership, someone wanting to build a convenience store on the property could knock down the church and tower, and no one could stop them.

“The city shouldn’t be in the land business”

The proposal was not without controversy, but none of it came from the council.  Jeff Rainwater, a former council candidate, said the city government has no business getting involved in “land speculation”.

“I want to talk about what made this country great, and that’s allowing the free market and capitalism to decide how things move forward,” he said. “Government in my belief is not about land speculation. It’s not about trying to force a piece of property to be developed in a certain way just because you want to save it. … There are people interested in this property. What you are doing is crowding out the private sector, taking it (the property) out of their hands at a higher price.”

No one bought his free enterprise pitch

He might as well have stayed at home and watched “The Big Bang Theory. The proposal has the support of the city manager, the mayor, and the influential Main Street/Rutherford County group, which has two city council members, two city employees and a top Franklin Synergy executive on its board.

City Manager Rob Lyons outlined several reasons for making the purchase. First, the city owns a parking lot in the block, and it would give a potential developer more certainty if the entire block were under one owner (the city) instead of two. Second, the property is adjacent to an area on Lytle that has become a hub of redevelopment activity. The new $73 million county justice building, a 366 space parking garage the county will  build and the city’s improvements to Lytle Street are all happening next door. Finally, the city will have input into how the block develops, making it grow in line with what is happening next door.

The same process as the Gateway District

Lyons compared the possible treatment for the area to the process that takes place in the Gateway District. The council sets broad guidelines as to what it wants in the area, and a citizen task force reviews proposals as they come in. The committee forwards each proposal with its recommendation to the council for an up or down vote. The guidelines for the bank property could require any businesses going into the district to create quality jobs,  for example, or insist that anything built fit in with an overall architectural theme of the area.

To sweeten the pot, the city could make the block and the area around it part of a Tax Increment Financing District. Basically, the district sells bonds to fund improvements in the district. If the improvements increase property values, as expected, the added tax revenue the city receives from the rise in property values is siphoned off to pay off the bonds.

But what about the church”

Historic church i on endangered list
Historic church is on endangered list

Lyons didn’t address the church directly. A city report says the building has a sloping concrete floor, which might make it difficult to restore it for any practical use. But the report sees no problem in saving the bell tower.

The Main Street group was excited about the proposal. Kathleen Herzog, the executive director, thanked the council members for their vision in making this purchase.

“We get calls, calls, calls’

“I just want to thank you for your … interest for this wonderful potential plan for this block that’s adjacent to our historic and beloved downtown,,” she said. “When would this ever happen again? We get calls, calls, calls from people about living downtown. We envision a mixed development, and we’re excited that the city could have some input in how it would develop. It fits in with our mission, which is to maintain, promote and enhance the historic downtown in the heart of the  community.”

Bill Jakes, a Realtor who serves on the Main Street Board, made a pitch for saving the church. “It is 127 years old and in healthy condition,” he told the council. “You can tell from the outside, the foundation is very strong. The church has good bones.”

He noted that in 1913 when a tornado swept though the town, it took down several buildings within 100 feet of the sanctuary, but the church and its bell tower emerged unscathed.

Because it had outgrown the facility, the Methodist Church voted in 1998 to leave the building, but not without heavy regrets from members who were attached to the old church. In 2003, the members moved into a new church that seats 1,350 people. A predecessor bank absorbed later by  Franklin Synergy bought the property and converted its adjacent buildings into a bank and offices. The church itself remained vacant.

Greg Tucker, the county’s historian, said the church is the only remaining architecture from the 19th century here that is unchanged. The country courthouse, which was built earlier, was extensively remodeled in 1909, making it dramatically different from the original building.

Let’s not let this one get away

Councilman Eddie Smotherman said the city has let several architectural treasures get away, like the former Janes K. Polk Hotel on Main Street. He argued that we will regret it later if this building falls to the wrecking ball.

“There is a significant landmark on this property,” he said. “For me it means as much to the city as Big Ben does to London or the Coliseum to Rome. Historically you could say it is comparable to a Frank Lloyd Wight home. “

“It may not have a significant event like the Oaklands Mansion, but it is a significant historical presence. It plays a role in the vitality and character of Murfeesboro,” he said.

Councilman Rick LaLance said he agreed with everything Smotherman stated, but warned he would be less likely to vote for any project on the site if it contained only apartments or condos.

“Weren’t you married in that church?” Smotherman asked LaLance. “That alone makes it historical.”

“Yes, and I went to preschool there. Does that mean I can’t vote on this?” LaLance joked.