E-Free Church discusses future with Black Hawk

As part of the Gregory Street Plaza Project

By Randy Beaudette

A heated debate erupted at the work session held on February 13, 2019 between the City of Black Hawk and the members of the Rocky Mountain Evangelical Free Church in Black Hawk. On one side, the church members wanted easier access to their place of worship. On the other side, Black Hawk City Council expressed their desires to move forward on their plans for the Gregory Street Plaza Project.

Representing Black Hawk were Mayor David Spellman and the entire Black Hawk City Council and Staff. Representing the Evangelical Free Church was Pastor Robert (Bob) Bingham and members of the congregation: Mark Anderson, Dr. Robert Cameron, Grandin G. and Darlene Hammell, Andy Hammer, and Dennis Underwood.

Built in 1889, the church building began its existence as the second of two Methodist Churches in Black Hawk. It remained that way until 1981 when the Rocky Mountain Evangelical Free Church acquired the building. It is listed on the plans for the plaza as the “Methodist Church.” Pastor Bingham has led the congregation for 30 plus years and has a longtime devoted following.

Congregational members approached the Mayor and the Aldermen to express their concerns about easier access for members of their church. In the past attendees were allowed to park on Gregory Street directly in front of the church. With the realignment of Gregory Street and the initial layout for the plaza, the church members have to park in the St. Charles Carriage House and walk cross Gregory Street traffic, or park in the old Columbine Clinic parking lot across High Street. Either way it is a considerable distance from the Church.

After initially meeting with Church representatives on November 1, 2018, about access to the church, the City amended the original Gregory Street Plaza design by doubling the length of the bus stop from thirty-five feet to seventy feet in length. This allowed for a passenger drop-off point for church members which would be closer than walking from either of the two parking areas. To accomplish this request and still have adequate access to the plaza, the Norton house would need to be moved back five feet into the mountainside, which will require blasting. The total cost estimate to accommodate the passenger drop-off extension is $200,000. After the passenger drop-off request was approved by the City, the Church representatives then requested one permit parking space be included in the bus stop/passenger drop-off zone by extending the zone either to the East or West. The City responded that the physical constraints on Gregory Street and the plaza area would not allow for further extension of the zone in either direction and that request would not be approved.

Church spokesman Mark Anderson expressed his concerns for the church members that are elderly or disabled. It was stated in the meeting that the church has already lost members due to the changes that the City has incorporated. Another issue is funerals. Where is the hearse supposed to park? Will they need a special access permit to drive on the plaza, or will the casket need to be carried from the bus stop? The Church is seeking solutions for this dilemma with the help of the City of Black Hawk. Suggestion ranged from expanding the bus stop to incorporate handicap parking, allowing special permits for vehicles to park on the plaza, and possibly utilizing a golf cart to shuttle churchgoers from the various nearby lots.

Mayor Spellman and the City Council explained that this project has been in the works for a long time. This plaza is for the betterment of the community and will be a part of making Black Hawk a resort town rather than being solely a gambling town. Black Hawk has already offered funding for all the exterior restoration of the historic church to bring it back to its original condition, which could run as high as $400,000 and for this reason the City was hoping that the church would embrace this project. The City has purchased the surrounding buildings that line the plaza except for the Methodist Church. One solution was for Black Hawk to purchase the church property for $375,000, and Pastor Bingham could then move his congregation to another less crowded location with easier access.

This solution wasn’t readily embraced by the members of the church, but they stated they would consider that option. Mayor Spellman encouraged them to make a counter offer if  the members so desired.

Folks from the Church congregation asked the city officials, “What would you do if you lost easy access to your home or business?” Mayor Spellman explained that Black Hawk is not situated in an ideal location. The topography of the town does not always allow for easy access. Some residents have to park on the street and climb stairs to their homes. Narrow canyons and historic structures limit what can be accomplished when developing in this area. Because of where the church is located, right up against a canyon wall topped by the High Street grade, there are not a lot of options that will satisfy the needs of the Church as well as the City.

By the end of the work session, it didn’t seem like a whole lot got accomplished. Black Hawk stood firm behind their plans for the plaza, and members of the Rocky Mountain Evangelical Free Church left the meeting disappointed. Both sides agreed to look into exploring some more options that will be acceptable to both the City and the Church.

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