The Rev. Bob Baker insists “I’m not mad.” But he is frustrated and anxious.
Baker is the pastor of Victory Church, a nondenominational, nonprofit place of worship in Washington Crown Center. It has been in the North Franklin Township mall for three years, but is now shopping for a new site.
Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns and operates Crown Center and numerous other shopping malls in the Northeast, has terminated its lease with Victory Church as of Aug. 31.
Baker said he knew last winter that this action might occur, then got an email from PREIT in June with the nonrenewal date.
Heather Crowell, Preit vice president of corporate communications and investor relations, called it a “business decision” and said there is “a lot of retail interest” in the space that Victory Church assumed from KB Toys, next to Kay Jewelers.
“We certainly empathize with their situation,” Crowell said. “There is no ill will. They were a good tenant. We just had a business decision to make.”
She said her Philadelphia-based company, within the next month, may announce that “at least one” new store will locate in Crown Center.
Baker certainly believes his church has been a good tenant, spending “thousands and thousands of dollars in renovations.” He pointed out that Victory initially had a two-year lease and PREIT had the grace to extend it a year.
From his standpoint, Crown Center has been an ideal venue for the church, which offers services at 10 a.m. Sundays and Bible study at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays. The congregation, he estimated, is 120 to 150.
“The problem is I feel I had calling to be here,” Baker said. “I think we’ve been a positive influence. We had people walk in from the mall and get saved.
“We definitely help and we want to stay in the community.”
Baker, who lives in Washington, said his church strives to help people in spiritual need, who have not been attending services elsewhere and may be in distress.
He described the atmosphere at his church as casual, where people can lounge in a chair and drink coffee during services.
Even if he isn’t angry, Baker said “some (in the congregation) are mad” about the lease.
Gee Gee Ross is among them. She said she and her husband, Bill, of Eighty Four, have been at the church in Crown Center since “day one, when we started painting.”
Ross is upset about the lease, and like her pastor, she believes that Crown Center is a grand location for Victory Church.
“To me, it doesn’t make any sense,” Ross said. “There are empty spaces in the mall. Plus the mall is a community where you can get your hair done, go to a movie, shop, see friends. So it makes sense to have a church there.”
Although the Rosses are empty nesters, Gee Gee is gratified that “we have every age group here. So many children. It’s a family atmosphere. We pass out food and I don’t know how many times I’ve offered free coffee. We’re here to help and serve.”
A native Kentuckian, Baker said Victory Church has been in Washington County for more than a decade. It has been at a Peters Township school, Washington Mall and Crown Center.
To accommodate potential growth, he said Victory Church needs a facility with 7,000 square feet of space or more. Baker said he has made inquiries into potential new sites and is awaiting calls back.
“We need help from the community to find another location,” he said.
In the meantime, Baker and his congregation will persevere, pray and continue hoping they somehow stay.
“God is in control,” he said, “and if God wants us there, we’ll be there.”