Episcopal Bishop to Lead Rally for Endangered Charity

Sep 03, 2006 07:37 AM EDT

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Opponents of Sedgwick County's plan for a new downtown arena will hold a rally next weekend to support a charity that might be closed because of the development.

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas announced Friday that he will lead the rally against plans to demolish the Episcopal Social Services building to make room for the $184 million, 15,000-seat sports and entertainment center.

Leaders of the charity say the county's offer of $500,000 for the building would not pay for comparable space downtown to continue their work.

"As a result, the people who will suffer are those who always suffer - the poor, the homeless and those in greatest need," Bishop Dean E. Wolfe said in a statement to The Wichita Eagle.

County officials have moved to condemn the Episcopal Social Services building and say they won't increase their offer. They contend that it would be unfair to other property owners in the area, who might then challenge their offers.

Commissioner David Unruh said he understood that the Episcopalians did not think their offer was fair, but it was based on an independent appraisal, as were all the offers for property in the arena zone.

"We haven't deviated from what our plan was at the start of the process," he said.

Diocese spokeswoman Melodie Woerman said the idea for a rally came from priests of the Southeast Kansas Convocation, a group of a dozen Episcopal churches with 3,500 members in Wichita and nearby communities.

The diocese covers about the eastern 40 percent of Kansas and has 12,000 members in 46 churches, she said.

The rally is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Sept. 9 in front of the Episcopal Social Services building.

"This is a pretty dire situation," Woerman said. "If we can bring some light to it, it probably would be a good thing."

Episcopal Social Services is the only building in the arena zone that was not appraised by Grubb & Ellis/Martens Commercial Group, which had a potential business conflict of interest with the charity.

Officials of Martens Group and Hudson Consulting Services, which performed the appraisal, said they are prohibited by their county contract from discussing the case.

Episcopal Social Services provides several services, including a daily free hot lunch, an employment center and counseling for troubled teens and their families.

The charity also runs the area's only free, large-scale "representative payee" program, managing rent and bills for people with mental illness or disabilities.

"It serves the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, and in return, the city and county need to support those efforts that serve the common good," Wolfe said. Episcopal Social Services "has done its part, but the county commissioners haven't done theirs."

Church and charity officials said they're especially troubled that the county paid $915,000 to acquire a similar-size building that housed a bar less than a block from the center.

"Anyone familiar with the facts of this situation can see clearly the inequity in how ESS's building has been treated," Wolfe said. "The only fair thing is for the county to call for additional appraisals."

Unruh said the charity will get the chance to make that case when the condemnation goes to court.

As part of that process, the county will have to pay for three independent appraisers to re-appraise the property and report their findings to the court.

"The judge will determine what the fair price is at that point," Unruh said. "The process allows for exactly what the bishop is asking for."

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