Westwego looking at agreement with church to turn home into center for troubled youth

After more than a decade of decay, a dilapidated Westwego home once slated to hold the city’s Musicians Hall of Fame could finally be getting a facelift, thanks to one of the West Bank’s oldest churches.

Westwego officials are exploring a cooperative endeavor agreement with True Vine Baptist Church that would allow the church to remodel a double at 263 Sala Ave. and then use that property for a community center. Under the plan, the church would pay a nominal lease, possibly $1 per year, in exchange for the money it spends to bring the building in compliance with the city’s building code.

Councilman Glenn Green, who has been pushing the plan for months, said he’s pleased to see the council finally agree with his wishes. Green said he knows True Vine has the best interests of the city and the community in mind.

“I think we know True Vine and trust True Vine enough to know they are doing the right thing,” Green said.

But Westwego City Attorney Joel Levy said that despite the church’s sterling reputation, the city still needs to structure its cooperative endeavor agreement so that it doesn’t violate state law.

Green initially proposed granting True Vine a 99-year lease for the property, but Levy noted that would be tantamount to giving away the building. State law prohibits public bodies from giving away things of value without payment.

Levy said he needs to investigate how long of a lease would be acceptable, and he will use that to structure the agreement.

“I would be careful that we structure the transaction so that we don’t run afoul of the law,” Levy said.

Green said he understands the need to abide by state law but doesn’t want to see the project delayed much longer. He said that given the state of the building, if anyone owned the property other than the city, it would have been demolished long ago.

“If we don’t start doing something soon, I’m going to tear it down,” Green said.

Mayor John Shaddinger said he supports True Vine’s efforts, although he would have preferred that the church bought the property outright.

Shaddinger said that when Westwego decided to move its Musician’s Hall of Fame to another location, the property was forgotten in the shuffle. It’s been used periodically for storage, but damage to its roof has led to its deterioration. Shaddinger said the city doesn’t have the money to make improvements, which he estimated could cost between $60,000 and $80,000.

“It’s just been dormant,” Shaddinger said. “I’m glad to see the home back in commerce, and to be used in a way that’s going to benefit the community.”

Theodore Jackson, a deacon at the church, said True Vine couldn’t justify spending thousands of dollars to rehabilitate the property without a promise that the building would be available to the church use for a substantial amount of time.

Although church members will make some of the repairs themselves, the church also will have to hire contractors to do electrical, plumbing and exterior repairs, he said.

“There’s a lot of work that has to be done,” Jackson said. “The church would have to have complete control of it to invest that type of money.”

Jackson said the church plans to use the building to expand its outreach in the community. It will offer parenting classes for teen parents, along with assistance in helping them finish school if they need it. Jackson said the church would eventually like to have a day care at the location.

“Really our focus is on helping our troubled youth,” Jackson said, noting that the church has been eyeing the vacant property for years. “We want to have a place where they can come in and get some kind of counseling.”