ELLENSBURG—Calvary Baptist Church has come back to the fold of downtown Ellensburg with style and renewed purpose.
The church was founded in 1956 in a building on Main Street and was first called Main Street Baptist Church. It was at other locations, then moved to a site on Vantage Highway for 42 years.
It moved back downtown last fall with a grand opening in the historic Liberty Theater Building on Oct. 3. The theater, which operated for 72 years, showed its last movie on Aug. 27, 2009.
For many, Calvary Baptist Church's move downtown, and the congregation's restoration of the 1937 theater at Fifth Avenue and Pine Street, are seen as a plus for the city's downtown and its historic buildings, while others lament the closing of the old-time movie theater.
The Rev. Fred Lampley, Calvary Baptist's lead pastor for nearly 29 years, acknowledges that most major community changes involve some sense of loss, and he's sure there are people who miss the old theater.
"What we've asked God for is that he would help us to be such good neighbors that people are glad to have us downtown," Lampley said recently. "We continue to work toward that goal so that folks will be able to conclude that the gain outweighs the loss."
Lampley said the congregation wants the move to be a blessing to the people and businesses of Ellensburg.
"We want to be a venue that is a real asset to this community, and we have taken steps to make our buildings available to those outside of our own membership," he said. "It is one way we can make our stated desire to be ‘an active, beneficial presence in downtown Ellensburg' more than a cliche."
Others with a keen interest in the improvement of downtown have expressed similar outlooks: the more diverse segments of the community that can continue to locate in downtown and reuse older buildings, the more active, livable and attractive the city's core will become.
Pass by and reuse
David Wheeler, a downtown building historian and restoration consultant, says the remodeling and reuse of the theater has a great effect on the vibrancy of Ellensburg's downtown core.
Much of downtown activities are based on "pass by and use," he said, meaning those going downtown often pass by a business, an office or other public services, including a church, and may become interested and stop in.
"When religious groups meet in an old core building they create that passby and reuse," Wheeler said, "which becomes the corner for more or other uses to be established close by."
A shopping mall has the same marketing effect, Wheeler said, where small and large businesses are grouped together for a better shopping experience for the consumer and a stronger economic value.
"Our downtown needs that exposure to meeting and greeting as many days of the week as possible," Wheeler said.
Shopping, public meetings, entertainment and other activities and services all have an effect on downtown, he said, along with things as informal as window shopping.
"Having more people come to the core means that they will add to that economic effect. If people live downtown or live next to downtown they are the audience that will buy from the stores that are there."
The Ellensburg Downtown Association appreciates the investment by Calvary Baptist to restore and maintain the Liberty Theater, said EDA Director Carolyn Honeycutt.
She noted the building provides seating for 400 people and an overflow of 80 more upstairs.
"This provides a great deal of traffic into downtown Ellensburg for Sunday services, as well as other events Calvary may offer," Honeycutt said. "Facilities that bring people downtown can directly benefit the restaurants and retail.
"Many of the church members may decide to shop or eat out after Sunday service."
She said churches in or near downtown, including The River/Church of the Nazarene at Third Avenue and Pearl Street, provide services that go beyond their members.
The River offers a downtown meeting venue for groups and organizations, including the EDA, and serves coffee and snacks with proceeds supporting the church's mission, she noted, along with showing movies.
Honeycutt said Lampley has indicated that The River has provided a great model of church involvement in downtown.
"Calvary wants to develop itself as an additional asset to the community, by offering the use of the building and annex to organizations and family-friendly events and other appropriate activities," she said.
Empty buildings are a tragedy in downtowns, Honeycutt said, and the contributions by The River and Calvary Baptist to restore and reuse their respective theaters will help to keep downtown full of life.
Wheeler said the two most recent churches to locate in downtown, The River and Calvary Baptist, see downtown locations as a key to their continued success.
He said there are at least six to eight churches or church groups that meet in or close to the downtown.
"Each has an impact and array of goodwill that benefits this community, whether or not we directly see their impact or investment in our downtown core," Wheeler said.
Another benefit to churches downtown, according to Wheeler, is that they create a quieter use level which makes the downtown neighborhood a better place to live and increases a sense of "safeness" that helps attract people to live, work, shop and recreate all in downtown.
Churches returning to downtown, he believes, can strengthen a community's business core by bringing more of life's basic services much closer together and connecting them.
"I think that it is a matter of seeing worth in past value," he said, "and adding a creative edge to that value. We congregate together for just a few reasons - safety, economic vitality, sociality, spiritually.
"Downtowns are founded with those as their base. When people don't feel safe, are economically unsettled, or socially out of control, no one really wants to live there. They may visit, but living there isn't easy.
"It sometimes takes that spiritual side to give a new balance for encouraging new uses."