By Christine Keeling
The land that featured a well-known roller coaster, big-name performances and legendary french fries now offers dangling power lines, obscene graffiti and a patchwork of weeds sprouting from asphalt cracks.
Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church proposed building a $50 million City of God when it purchased the former Idora Park property on Youngstown’s South Side for $300,000.
That was 1985.
But 26 years later, the divine destination is derelict and its future undecided.
The 26-acre parcel sits in the middle of a massive neighborhood-redevelopment effort, the church is reconsidering its plan and Mahoning County could lose more than $21,000 in property taxes if the state decides, after almost four years, to classify it tax-exempt.
“It’s just sitting there,” said 30-year Idora neighborhood resident Bernice Ward. “They won’t sell it; they won’t do anything about it. We tried to reach [the church] to see if we could go there for a minute. But they don’t return our calls.”
James London, Idora Neighborhood Association president, said he attempted to contact the church two years ago to get permission to have a community picnic at the site and later to paint rusted posts on the property. He said the church never responded. London said he eventually asked the church to reply if it objected to the project.
Idora’s important to the neighbors and the city.
Besides painting the posts, the association developed a 4-H group that received a statewide award for urban youth engagement, stopped the sale of liquor at the Party Pantry and Park N Shop and is collaborating with Councilman Paul Drennen to object to Gina’s Food Mart’s liquor license. It also worked with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. to provide garden signs in the neighborhood.
The city of Youngstown, in collaboration with the YNDC, spent more than $1.5 million revitalizing the Idora neighborhood after a plan was adopted by city council in March 2008.
In 20 months, the city demolished 56 houses, added new street signs and joined forces with the YNDC to rehab more than 30 homes. In addition, the YNDC secured 30 vacant dwellings, repaired five homes, installed three pavilions, returned 118 lots to productive use and gave down-payment assistance to six homebuyers.
A new 18,000-square-foot grocery store in the area is preparing to break ground, and Mill Creek MetroParks plans to spend $300,000 to upgrade the East Cohassett Trail that runs through the neighborhood.
Presley Gillespie, executive director of the YNDC, said he believes the church-owned Idora Park parcel negatively impacts the economics and pride of the community and affects the quality of residents’ lives.
One church member and city leader disagreed.
Jason Whitehead, chief of staff to Mayor Jay Williams and undershepherd of Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church, said he doesn’t believe the property is negative as it stands today.
“The City of God is not a geographical location,” said Whitehead. “It’s concept was that the city of Youngstown would be a place where God would reign supreme, reign first in the lives of men and women, and [the church] would seek to develop the entire city as a place where men and women [who are part of Christian leadership] could come rest and relax.”
He said the church looked to use the Idora property as its “centerpiece.”
The church’s City of God plan included a nursing home, counseling center, shopping plaza, retirement home and religious education and worship facilities. It was set to break ground in 1987.
“The concept is being modified,” said Whitehead. “The Christian-restoration concept was really driven by Bishop [Norman] Wagner.”
He said the church’s new leadership would make its decision on the future of the property in 12 to 18 months.
Wagner died in January 2010 and District Elder C. Shawn Tyson was installed as the new leader of Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church in October.
Leroy Simmons, a 30-year Idora resident, said he knew about the church‘s original plan and believes the neighborhood’s future would be better if the property got in the hands of someone who would take action.
Bill D’Avignon, director of Youngstown Community Development and Planning, said the department looked at taking control of the property when the church stopped paying its property taxes but found the church had filed for tax-exempt status.
Yvette Klenotic, delinquent real-estate director for the Mahoning County treasurer, said properties with unpaid property taxes could face a lien sale or foreclosure. But, if a tax-exempt status is pending, no action will be taken against the property owner.
“It’s stalemated until a decision is made,” said Klenotic.
In May 2007, the church filed an application for Real Property Tax Exemption and Remission to the Mahoning County auditor on its Idora property and 12 surrounding properties on Woodford Avenue and Pearce Avenue.
On the application, the church stated the properties were “used for special church events.” Its plans included building a “new church edifice,” and its tax-exempt use began in 1994.
John Kohlstrand, former communication director for the Ohio Department of Taxation, said tax exemptions are given to primary sites of worship. He said church-owned baseball fields and properties with administrative buildings on them that facilitate worship have been rejected due to an Ohio Supreme Court ruling. But, he added, consideration can be given if a church is in the process of being built.
If the tax-exempt status is granted in full, Kohlstrand — displaced in January by the Kasich administration — said the church could receive a refund on property taxes paid since 1994.
If the application is denied, the church would owe $21,256 in property taxes on the Idora property not paid since 2007.
“We haven’t ruled out [building a new church], but we’re not locked into that property right now,” said Whitehead. “We are really looking at some out-of-the-box thinking as it compares to what we have stated in the past.”
He said the church, as a private-property owner, can do whatever it wants with the property, but its new leadership considered keeping portions of the land as green space and using a nostalgic and historical approach with walking trails for people who are inquisitive about the former amusement park. He also said portions of the property may be turned over to Mill Creek MetroParks.
Youngstown’s 2010 plan for Idora seemed more definite. It lists the property’s future use as recreational area.
“Each vacant property in Youngstown has unique assets and uses,” said Mayor Williams.
He said 2010 plan developers thought Idora’s “highest and best” use was recreational space because of its natural geographical location next to Mill Creek MetroParks.
Williams, a member of Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church, said he isn’t involved in its leadership or any decisions made by church leaders.
“I don’t know the future of the property,” said Williams. Neighbors, the development corporation “and the church need to come to a consensus,” he added.
He said the city would support those efforts.
Whitehead said Tyson’s Mount Calvary wanted to be good neighbors and not on the opposite side of the aisle. But the church was not going to allow a neighborhood group to dictate the parcel’s future.
Last fall, YNDC leaders extended an invitation to meet with church leaders to discuss the possibility of layering resources.
“There’s unlimited possibilities that can take place in that space,” said Gillespie. “No one organization can do it.”
On Dec. 8, the Ohio Department of Taxation denied the church’s application for tax exemption because the church failed to respond to its Sept. 24 letter requesting more information.
The tax-exempt application “was denied because the church failed to submit information that supported progress had been made toward the goal of creating a property that would be exempt,” said Gary Gudmundson, communication director for the Ohio State Department of Taxation. “The state looked to see, did they do any fundraising? Hire an architect? Contractor? Was there any tangible demonstration that they are moving forward?”
In mid-January, Whitehead and Tyson agreed to meet with the YNDC.
Gillespie said during the Jan. 27 introductory meeting that the church expressed an interest in working with the YNDC and the community to develop a plan for the Idora property that benefited all parties.
“The fact they sat with us is a good first step,” said Gillespie.
Two weeks later, the taxation department set aside its tax-exemption denial.
Gudmundson said the church provided information about the Idora property’s future in February that resulted in the change of ruling. Though he said he was not able to elaborate, he added the state made further inquiries in March about the church’s plans, but that it has yet to respond.
Gudmundson didn’t put a time line on the state’s final decision, other than to say, “When [the church] responds as best as they can to our requests and proves convincingly why the property should be exempt, we can make a decision.”
He said the department was working directly with the church and hoped it could provide the additional information in the next 30 to 60 days.