Statement To Lebanon City Council

Presented at Lebanon City Council Meeting on Tuesday, May 26, 2020

I am The Rev. Dr. Karen Ruth Schaeffer, Pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and board member of Pleasant Square Development, LLC

During the recent Lebanon High School graduation ceremony Superintendent Yohey pointed out the motto of Lebanon City Schools, Lebanon Warriors Build Community! Today, we Lebanon Warriors have a unique opportunity for community building!I trust we will not miss this moment of opportunity.

Bethel, African Methodist Episcopal Church was irreparably damaged by fire in Dec. 2017… Nevertheless, Bethel has persevered with our strategic plan to BUILD UP GOD’S BELOVED COMMUNITY. We submitted the only unsolicited proposal in response to the city’s request for qualifications to build in the Pleasant Square neighborhood in April 2018.

Our proposal in response to RFQ#18-1821 included intergenerational space for worship, learning and empowerment  on the Cherry St. and Pleasant Square property… also a junior high sized gym/multipurpose room and classrooms as well as co-working space and… a business incubator. We proposed to build homes at the corner of New and Mechanic St.; along with outdoor green space and a community garden.

Our first “Think Pleasant Square” community input session in Oct. 2018 was attended by people who live, own homes, work or worship in the neighborhood and was also attended by city staff. As you may recall, participants expressed excitement about our plans to maximize economic vitality. Our commitment to restore homes, (owned or rented), to former beauty, and to build new high quality homes with costs defrayed by sweat equity if necessary, was welcomed and supported by neighbors…

We were told that the church could not acquire the land as proposed due to separation of church and state, (which we support), so, we formed a separate business, Pleasant Square Development, LLC. (PSD) made agreements with builders who were equipped and prepared to build homes that addressed the city’s desire to have upscale homes while maintaining alignment with the value of existing homes. We were then told that our builders, though highly qualified and experienced, were not acceptable, and that home buyers could not be given tax abatement, nor could PSD purchase the land at a reduced price …so…

We revised our plan again to meet the criteria we were told would be necessary. Then we were told our plan was too complex and we were advised to talk with a Warren County official about tax implications.

So…we had that talk with the Warren County official. City staff called the next week to say that Bethel AME Church could buy the N. Cherry St. lots at their full assessed value and the city would release the larger Mechanic and New St. property for city development through a new (now the current) RFQ process. We were told this was our only option to acquire any of the land.

So, Bethel paid $48,000.00 to acquire less than an acre of  land, and told city staff, that we remain committed to the community building restorative work described in our proposal.

In a nutshell Lebanon Warriors, to Pleasant Square Development, LLC the answer was no when it came to..

  1. our suggestion of multi-family homes;
  2. to a cost break on land;
  3. to tax abatement for builders or home buyers, and
  4. to homes in a cost range accessible to first time buyers or people who earn moderate incomes.

Now we read news that current plans include access and opportunity that was clearly denied to Pleasant Square Development, LLC and our building collaborators. We do not know this to be true, so we have come to find out whether,

  1. $300,000.00-$400,000.00  multifamily homes are to be built.
  2. Whether 1.5 acres is to be sold for $1.00.
  3. Whether there is to be a 10 year tax abatement plan…

Regardless of what builder is chosen by you, our duly elected officials, as Lebanon Warriors we are committed to building community together. We are committed to helping with the plan to revitalize the Pleasant Square neighborhood. We are here to help make sure the needs and desires of the Lebanon Warriors in Pleasant Square are front and center; to make sure that existing homes, families and organizations are included! We are excited about helping to make sure that whoever builds on the land (that, ironically, some of the families lost due to needing tax relief), will bring job opportunities to the neighborhood residents through hiring, apprenticeships, mentoring etc. We are here to help communicate in and with the neighborhood to make sure that decisions are enriched by the viewpoints of diverse Lebanon Warriors. We are here to help shape the decisions that will shape our everyday lives, …Most importantly…we are Lebanon Warriors who live or serve in the Pleasant Square neighborhood and we will continue to be present and to speak as we build up our community together.

As Bethel’s pastor, and member of Pleasant Square Development. I contend that our current context is, embedded in and inextricably shaped by our historic struggle to live up to the values expressed in our Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution of the USA. This situation provides us a unique opportunity for community building.

In closing, We are Lebanon Warriors, we have the opportunity to fearlessly challenge the historic reputation of our city as a place where racism, classism and sexism divides us… and to engage together in economic, social, spiritual, and physical revitalization-We have a unique opportunity to unify.…We have a unique opportunity to put to rest historic divisions in order to demonstrate how diverse groups of people come together in a representative democracy- such as the one we are blessed to live in- in order to build “a more perfect union”…We are here to participate in a community where “liberty and justice for all” truly means “all.”  Let’s make true what we say when we recite our pledge of allegiance, let’s make it true that Lebanon Warriors believe in liberty and justice for all!  Let’s make it be true that Lebanon Warriors Build Community together!!  Thank you.