TOWANDA - The Towanda Borough Council this week voted to draft an ordinance to vacate a half-block of Cherry Street so that the Independent Baptist Church can build a community center/gymnasium on its grounds.

The section of Cherry Street that would be vacated is the one that is closest to the church building, and that section is bordered on both sides by church property, said the Rev. Donn Hauser, senior pastor of the church.

Vacating the half-block of Cherry Street would give the church enough room to build the community center/gymnasium, since the church would no longer be bound by a construction setback from the road, he said.

The church, located at 109 Cherry St., has not yet voted to build the community center, he said.

"My sense is that yes, we would proceed with building it" if the borough vacated part of the street and if the church determined that the project would be affordable, he said.

It's not known yet if the community center/gymnasium would extend into Cherry Street, he said. If the footprint of the building were located partially on Cherry Street, the roadway would be moved and kept in use so that motorists could still access the church via Cherry Street, he said.

In addition, the church "would be willing to consider" making an annual $1,500 payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the borough, he said. The church has also not voted yet on making the PILOT, he said.

Churches are tax-exempt, and currently no church in the borough makes a PILOT to the borough, said Towanda Borough Council member Paul Sweitzer.

The council decided to not charge the church for the borough's legal fees in drafting the ordinance.

"It's a church," said council member William Kovalcin Jr., urging his fellow council members not to charge the church.

Council member Paul Sweitzer was also opposed to charging the church, saying that all residents of the community will benefit from the community center/gymnasium.

Besides a gym, the planned building would house classrooms and a kitchen, Hauser said.

While the planned building is referred to as a community center, "it's not going to be a community center where community members can come and use it any old time they want to," Hauser said.

"The church will retain its position of authority over the use of the building," Hauser continued. "It's not something we will open up to the community for anything the community wants to do with it."

But there would be activities that the community would be invited to participate in that would be held in the planned building, he said.

"We might hold a basketball tournament in the gymnasium and invite the community to participate in it - things like that," Hauser said.

There are community organizations that currently use the church building, such as the Red Cross and It Takes a Village, and the activities of those groups would be moved to the community center/gymnasium, he said.

In addition, if the YMCA needed additional space for its activities, the church would consider allowing the organization to use the community center/gym, and the church would also consider allowing the Towanda School District to use the gym if it needed additional space, he said.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreviewcom.