Sale of Southern Baptist center in Georgia delayed after rezoning fails

June 15, 2022 Duluth - Aerial photograph shows the Georgia Baptist Mission Board's 40-acre property in Duluth, which the Southern Baptists are trying to sell as it is too big for them, on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. The Gwinnett County Commission recently denied a request to rezone the property for a mixed-use development. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
June 15, 2022 Duluth - Aerial photograph shows the Georgia Baptist Mission Board's 40-acre property in Duluth, which the Southern Baptists are trying to sell as it is too big for them, on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. The Gwinnett County Commission recently denied a request to rezone the property for a mixed-use development. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Georgia Baptist Mission Board will have to demonstrate the virtue of patience after the Gwinnett County Commission recently rejected a rezoning proposal that would have allowed the Southern Baptist ministry to sell its 40-acre property across from Gas South Arena near Duluth.

So for now, the organization remains saddled with an over-sized building that it can no longer afford.

The organization ministers to a network of 3,600 churches in the state, representing 1.5 million Baptists, said David Melber, chief operating officer.

The mission board moved into the five-story building on Sugarloaf Parkway with nearly 300 staffers just before the 2008 financial collapse, Melber told county commissioners. Church donations declined in the ensuing recession and the organization reduced staff accordingly, he said.

Now, an average of just 33 people work each day in the building, which has an operational overhead of about $1.3 million per year, he said.

The property includes a 55-foot cross towering out of a pond in front of the 175,000-square-foot building, which contains religious monuments and statues, a chapel, a prayer room with a stained glass window and an engraving of the Last Supper in a conference suite. There is also a two-story parking garage.

Combined ShapeCaption
June 15, 2022 Duluth - Aerial photograph shows the Georgia Baptist Mission Board's 40-acre property in Duluth, which the Southern Baptists are trying to sell as it is too big for them, on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. The Gwinnett County Commission recently denied a request to rezone the property for a mixed-use development. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

June 15, 2022 Duluth - Aerial photograph shows the Georgia Baptist Mission Board's 40-acre property in Duluth, which the Southern Baptists are trying to sell as it is too big for them, on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. The Gwinnett County Commission recently denied a request to rezone the property for a mixed-use development. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
June 15, 2022 Duluth - Aerial photograph shows the Georgia Baptist Mission Board's 40-acre property in Duluth, which the Southern Baptists are trying to sell as it is too big for them, on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. The Gwinnett County Commission recently denied a request to rezone the property for a mixed-use development. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“It’s way too large for our needs,” Melber said. “We need to redeploy those assets of that property elsewhere.”

Melber did not respond to a question from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the property’s asking price. The county this year appraised the building at about $30.5 million and the land at $7.1 million, records show. It is zoned for residential, office and general business use.

The potential buyer, multi-family residential developer JLB Partners, proposed rezoning it for a mixed-use development with about 600 apartments behind five office buildings along Sugarloaf Parkway. Four of the office buildings would have three stories and one would have four stories with retail on the ground floor. The existing ministry center would be demolished.

An earlier proposal also included 113 townhouses built by Toll Brothers, but those were eliminated after county officials weighed in.

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The Gwinnett County Planning Commission denied the latest rezoning request, at the recommendation of planning department staff, before county commissioners late last month unanimously followed suit.

Commissioner Kirkland Carden, whose District 1 includes the property, said he’d communicated his desire for an “intense commercial” project there to coincide with as-yet unreleased redevelopment plans for the Gas South District. He said other lots on Sugarloaf Parkway are better suited for residential development, but that area needs high-end office space.

“This has to be one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Gwinnett County, given its proximity to Gas South and the interstate,” he said. “Whatever goes at that site must build on Gas South, not be dependent on it.”

Carden later told the AJC he hasn’t seen the Gas South Arena proposals that the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau is reviewing, but added, “I am really excited by what I’m hearing was submitted.”

JLB Partners will not buy the Baptist property without a residential component to the project, said the company’s attorney, Carl Westmoreland of Morris, Manning & Martin in Atlanta.

“The real question for the commission is, if they think there’s another viable use for which a developer is knocking down the door, where are they?” Westmoreland said. “The Baptist mission board is stuck with something they can’t afford and they can’t sell. That’s the consequence of this.”

The Baptist organization hopes to move to an existing space for about 50 employees, probably in Gwinnett County, Melber told the AJC. But that move is contingent on the sale of the current property, he said.

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Carden said he anticipates a lot more interest from commercial developers once the Gas South District redevelopment plans are finalized and announced.

“I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “I don’t expect for this site to lay there for years on end.”