Staff Photo by Harrison Keely/Chattanooga Times Free Press Lee University recently purchased the First Baptist Church sanctuary and other property in downtown Cleveland, Tenn., for $5 million.
CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- The $5 million purchase of First Baptist Church's downtown facilities entirely will reshape Lee University, a school official said.
"It absolutely changes the balance of campus; it changes where the energy is," Vice President of University Relations Jerome Hammond said. "This purchase is an opportunity to rethink where everything is."
The seven-acre property includes four houses, the main church complex and the former JCPenney building along North Ocoee Street.
"We don't want a salad of rooms down there. We know what our needs are, but it's a matter of intelligently deciding how to rearrange the campus," Dr. Hammond said. "This is the first time that Lee has acquired property and a facility with the luxury to say, 'What will we do with this?'"
The church's sanctuary likely will become a smaller performance hall, he said, noting that the building's wings, which were added in 1996, would be easy to renovate and separate to create more space.
The south side of the building is well suited for an early learning center and employee child care, he said. The church's reception room could become an additional student gathering place, he added.
The JCPenney building next to the church can be renovated much more easily than the main church, Dr. Hammond said, noting the structure likely will house student services and extra office space.
Though he acknowledged the JCPenney building does not fit with the architectural style of the campus, Dr. Hammond said there are no plans to do away with it.
"We would be hesitant in the extreme to think about tearing that down," he said. "It meets a lot of our needs as is."
First Baptist Church can stay in its current offices next to the JCPenney building for up to three years under the agreement made with Lee, said the Rev. Jim Gibson, a pastor at First Baptist.
First Baptist plans to move to its new location on Stuart Road in September.
No renovations on the church's main sanctuary building will begin until First Baptist moves out completely, Dr. Hammond said.
"Right now we're trying to give First Baptist their space," he said. "Until they're out, we won't really heavily descend on that building."
In October, a technology crew can survey the sanctuary, Dr. Hammond said, but a solid plan to install the school's computer network probably wouldn't be set before December, he said. Beyond that, the wiring could take until next summer.
Nevertheless, classes likely will begin in the building next spring, Dr. Hammond said.
The purchase of First Baptist put no strain on the university's budget, Dr. Hammond said, despite the fact that Lee just completed an $11 million science and math complex and is erecting three new apartment buildings on campus.
"The science building was straight fundraising; First Baptist is straight fundraising," he said.
Despite a long interest in purchasing First Baptist, the move was impossible until donors stepped forward in the last year to pledge gifts for the project, he said.
Lee has no concern about moving students closer to the downtown area, Dr. Hammond said, noting First Baptist's property is comprised of well-lighted, open spaces. A series of recent renovations have made downtown Cleveland a vibrant and robust location with renewed energy, he said.
Dr. Hammond said Lee and First Baptist met in the middle when it came to the deal's price tag.
"It would be safe to say Lee didn't steal it," he said. "I think both sides won."
The church always has tried to be good neighbors with the university, Mr. Gibson said.
"We're very glad that they wanted it and purchased it," he said. "We still hope that relationship continues, even though we'll be 4 1/2 miles from downtown."
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Harrison Keely is a web producer for the Times Free Press. He manages social media for the paper and anchors the daily Times Free Press newscast. He joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a reporter in 2010. He previously served as managing editor of the Smoky Mountain Sentinel in western North Carolina and as a business reporter for the Washington Times in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Lee University in 2009 where he served ...