Kevin Riordan: Cherry Hill church deal on shaky ground

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Kim Simmons-Dimpter and Rita McClellan (right) worry that rehab services at Solid Rock Worship Center, behind them, could jeopardize the community. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

When the Solid Rock Worship Center offered to buy the former Holy Rosary Church in Cherry Hill in the fall, the match looked made in heaven.

But the honeymoon is over - maybe it never began - and a divorce now looks likely.

Unless Solid Rock comes up with the entire $2.9 million purchase price immediately, the deal is dead, says Peter Feuerherd, director of communications for the Diocese of Camden.

He says Solid Rock violated the lease-purchase agreement by failing to repay $32,000 it borrowed from a down-payment account in order to make the rent.

"We're not going to send in the sheriff, but their lease is up April 1," Feuerherd adds. "We intend to enforce the contract."

Not so fast, says Pastor Amir Khan, whose nondenominational Christian congregation moved in December into the Holy Rosary property in the township's Ashland section.

The campus, which includes a convent, a rectory, and a school building, is tucked between commercial strips and residential neighborhoods at Evesham and Burnt Mill Roads. Solid Rock moved its headquarters there from Clementon and hoped to add an elementary school and a Bible college.

"It's a sin what they are doing, the way they are spinning it," Khan says of diocesan officials. "They're doing this because they got pressure from the community."

Nearby residents were alarmed this month after a man who had been working and living at Solid Rock was arrested in connection with five house burglaries in the neighborhood.

Last Thursday, Mayor Bernie Platt sent a letter to reassure residents that the township would protect public safety and enforce zoning and other regulations. "Pastor Khan has promised to be a good neighbor, and now he needs to deliver on the promise," the mayor wrote.

But whatever goodwill the mostly white neighborhood had for the predominantly black church already had given way to fears that ex-cons and addicts would flock to programs of the church's Nehemiah Project, which provides counseling and other rehabilitative services.

The township found Solid Rock in violation of the zoning code for headquartering Nehemiah, which is a private, nonprofit community-development corporation, on the church site.

The pastor, meanwhile, has promised Platt in writing that no homeless shelters, halfway houses, boardinghouses, or drug rehabs would open - ever - at the Ashland campus.

But nearby residents aren't convinced.

"We don't have a problem with the church. . . . The church we embrace. The problem we have is with the other entities, like Nehemiah," says Rita McClellan, a mother of two.

Her friend Kim Simmons-Dimpter, who also is raising two children in the neighborhood, says she doesn't believe the pastor's promises. Solid Rock, she adds, essentially "sneaked" into their backyard.

"It's a trust issue," she says.

Adds longtime resident Alan Ehrlich: "Pastor Khan has upset a hornet's nest. He should pack up and leave."

Known as Palmwood Estates when it was built in the '50s, the neighborhood bordering the L-shaped Solid Rock campus is a cozy grid of one-story homes.

This is not the sort of posh neighborhood some people associate with Cherry Hill. But it's the sort of place where people take great pride in their homes and where children can walk to school.

In other words, it's the sort of place where new neighbors ought to feel comfortable introducing themselves.

Khan ruefully acknowledges that he didn't do that, although the Solid Rock website and various YouTube videos joyfully proclaim the new Cherry Hill facilities.

Feuerherd, meanwhile, notes that the sale "looked like a good fit" for Holy Rosary, which shut down in December 2009.

The diocese has been consolidating parishes and closing churches and schools for several years. It has six properties on the market.

Whatever happens with the Solid Rock deal, Holy Rosary has an excellent location, PATCO access, and plenty of parking. Someone is going to buy it.

"Any time a facility the size of Holy Rosary changes ownership," Platt says, "both buyer and seller should reach out to the neighborhood."

And vice versa.

 


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.