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 half-block that dead-ends at the church building, and the section that would be vacated is bordered on both sides by church property, said the Rev. Donn Hauser, senior pastor of the church.

Vacating a portion of the roadway 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 members of the church, located at 109 Cherry St., have not yet voted to build the community center, he said.

However, Hauser 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.

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 payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the borough, he said.

Borough officials said the church is interested in making a $1,500 annual PILOT.

The members of the church have also not yet voted on whether they would make a PILOT, Hauser 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.

Over the past several years, the church has purchased two homes on Cherry Street and torn them down in order to create additional parking for the church and in order to have land available for the community center/gymnasium, Hauser said.

"We are sensitive to the fact that the borough has lost money" due to the fact that two properties have been taken off the tax rolls, and because vacating the half-block of Cherry Street would result in the borough receiving less liquid fuels dollars from the state, he said. "So we would repay that by making a payment in lieu of taxes," he said.

Another reason for vacating Cherry Street is that it will make it safer for pedestrians to walk from the church to the community center/gymnasium and from one of the church's parking lots to the community center/gymnasium, Hauser said.

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 three-on-three basketball tournament in the gymnasium and invite the community (to field their own teams) 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 those groups would be using 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, say, for a make-up game, he said.

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