Midtown SCADShow theater sale to megachurch causing neighbor friction

After eight years, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has decided to sell its Midtown theater to Free Chapel, a megachurch based out of Gainesville. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com
Caption
After eight years, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has decided to sell its Midtown theater to Free Chapel, a megachurch based out of Gainesville. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

The church pastor supported Donald Trump, which rankles some of the neighbors.

The Savannah College of Art and Design has decided to sell its Midtown theater SCADShow to Gainesville-based megachurch Free Chapel, rankling some neighbors of the theater space.

The theater, which SCAD purchased in 2014 from the Woodruff Arts Center for $1.9 million, was used for student productions and events such as its annual aTVFest. It currently has two stages with 360 seats in one theater and 175 in the other. It’s located across the street from Colony Square and has a large theater marquee.

Free Chapel, which is run by Gainesville-based Evangelical pastor Jentezen Franklin, is currently using space at Woodruff Arts Center. The church has seven physical locations including churches in Orange County, California; and Spartanburg, South Carolina.

The Atlanta City Council is scheduled on Aug. 2 to decide whether to change zoning rules to allow the church to take the space.

Rebecca Godleski, who lives in a building next to the theater, recently created an online petition seeking support to fight the sale. “This is not a local, community church looking to put down permanent roots in one of Atlanta’s most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods,” she wrote. “It’s a megachurch that’s purchasing a facility that was intended to foster a burgeoning arts community.”

She added: “As a televangelist and Trump loyalist who is locked in a legal dispute involving allegations of a multimillion-dollar fundraising scam, Franklin and his church do not reflect the values of Midtown residents and relocating his worship center to Midtown’s living room would be an affront to our community as we know it.”

Mike Evans, a Texas-based Christian Zionist, in 2019 sued Franklin for withholding $3.3 million of $4.5 million raised to benefit Holocaust survivors. Franklin has denied the charges, noting that there was never a contractual agreement.

Pastor Jentezen Franklin began the livestreamed service at Free Chapel in Gainesville by reading the National Day of Prayer proclamation from President Donald Trump.  The president watched the church service online Sunday, March 15, 2020. (Photo: Via Free Chapel's livestream on YouTube)
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Pastor Jentezen Franklin began the livestreamed service at Free Chapel in Gainesville by reading the National Day of Prayer proclamation from President Donald Trump. The president watched the church service online Sunday, March 15, 2020. (Photo: Via Free Chapel's livestream on YouTube)

In an interview, Godleski said she and her neighbors found out about the sale relatively late in the process. “It seems everything has already been decided,” she said. “We’re kind of playing catch up. It merits a greater look. This feels like it’s been fast-tracked through.”

She said there could be some traffic issues as well, though she knows she lives in a high-density part of town.

Carl Westmoreland, the attorney representing Free Chapel, said none of the complaints in the petition hold any legal merit, noting that both the Midtown Neighbors’ Association and Neighborhood Planning Unit – E had no issue with the special-use permit.

“This is as low a traffic generator as you can have there,” Westmoreland said. “I think [the opponents] are late and irrelevant.”

Godleski’s petition has generated about 630 names as of July 22.

SCAD, a Savannah-based academic institution which has a major presence in Atlanta, declined to comment about specifics regarding the SCADShow sale but sent a statement about its new, mixed-use development at 1470 Spring St. near its main campus that features a new main stage theater, a 700-seat auditorium and 150-seat black box theater.

“The theater will be home to signature SCAD Atlanta events such as SCAD Animation Fest, SCAD aTVfest, SCAD GamingFest, host industry screenings with leading Hollywood notables, and offer special performances throughout the year,” the statement said. “This new venue will supplant SCADshow, formerly on 14th Street.”

The 14th Street space first opened in 1987 as the Academy Theatre, then became 14th Street Playhouse in 1990 under the Woodruff Arts Center umbrella. For many years, it was primarily used as a rental space for smaller theater and dance troupes.

In the early 1990s, when Tyler Perry was just a man with a dream, he spent his entire $12,000 in savings and rented the 14th Street Playhouse for his autobiographical play “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” It was a commercial failure with just 30 people attending that weekend. He kept plugging away and eventually developed successful plays a decade later that would he would parlay into a coterie of TV shows and films. He’s now a billionaire with his own film production studio.

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