Essex Alliance seeks  new Williston facility

Aug. 14, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

With donations down and expenses up, can Essex Alliance Church still afford a giant new house of worship in Williston? 

The church filed a permit application with the town for a new 168,000-square-foot facility almost two years ago. The proposal moved briskly through the review process and a somewhat scaled-back plan received concept approval from the Williston Development Review Board in April 2007.

But the permit application, which must still undergo additional rounds of review, has since sat dormant, raising questions about whether the church intends to pursue the proposal. Adding to the uncertainty are seemingly shaky church finances.

In a June 1 sermon, Rev. Scott Slocum, Essex Alliance’s senior pastor, said the congregation would need to increase donations to be able to afford the mortgage on the new church and erase a budget deficit.

“For the first time in our history, we are not going forward, we are going backward — to devastating effect,” he said, according to a digital recording posted on the church’s Web site.

Slocum said Essex Alliance might be forced to lay off people or forgo the new church if donations did not rebound.

The church’s budget was $243,000 in the red and more than $10,000 a month in additional donations would be needed to pay the mortgage on the new building in Williston, Slocum said. To regain its financial footing, average weekly giving had to rise from $46,000 to $64,500.

In an interview last week, Slocum said the budget crunch is not keeping plans for the new church from moving forward.

“The church has the finances. That’s not the issue,” he said. “The issue is internal to our operations.”

Slocum explained that a “perfect storm” of falling donations, rising expenses and accounting changes have made the church’s financial situation appear more precarious than it really is.

Donations vary over the course of the year, Slocum said, and his June sermon captured only a snapshot of the church’s financial standing. He added that expenses also vary, and the deficit in part reflected an outlay for the church’s Easter service held at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds.

The deficit has in fact shrunk considerably in the past two months, according to an update posted this week on the church’s Web site. Weekly giving is up, though it remains below what Slocum said would be needed to eliminate red ink and pay for the new church.

Growing pains

Essex Alliance has grown rapidly over the past several years. In 2004, the church began to hold services at Essex Cinemas.

In November 2006, a massive new church was proposed on Vermont 2A north of Taft Corners in Williston. The facility would include seating for more than 1,800 people and parking for 600 vehicles as well as a café, gymnasium and church offices.

The proposal drew opposition from nearby residents. Many complained that the church, about 50 percent bigger than Wal-Mart in Williston, would be out of scale with the surrounding area and clog traffic.

The Development Review Board requested the church downsize the facility. A few months later, Essex Alliance submitted a revised proposal that converted the original single structure to five smaller buildings totaling about 141,000 square feet. The new plan then received concept approval.

But little or nothing has been added in more than a year to the church’s thick permit application file kept at Williston Town Hall. Matthew Boulanger, who was hired as assistant town planner in June, said he has not heard from the church since starting his new job.

Slow-moving process

The long intermission in the local review process would be unusual for a private development, where time equals money. But building a new church is not like constructing a subdivision or a retail store, Slocum said.

Multiple departments of the church have input into various aspects of the design, which can evolve to suit the church’s needs, Slocum said. The church planned on a process that would take three to five years.

Since June, Essex Alliance’s financial situation has improved considerably, according to its Web site. Average weekly giving has risen to $58,465 and the budget deficit has dropped to $66,738.

The Web site did not provide details on the funding situation for a new church, and Slocum did not respond to a request for more information. But he said in a previous interview that the church has money set aside for a down payment on land in Williston and is lining up financing for the building.

“The only thing finances will determine is what we will be able to build and when,” Slocum said.