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Pastor says fight over historic bell tower could force First Lutheran to close

First lutheran church bell tower
Becca Costello
The bell tower at First Lutheran Church in Over-the-Rhine is under emergency demolition orders.

A disagreement about demolishing a historic bell tower in Over-the-Rhine is headed to mediation this week. City officials say the First Lutheran Church tower is deteriorating and at risk of falling.

The city ordered an emergency demolition over a year ago, but the church delayed while trying to raise enough money for repairs. When that failed, local preservation group OTR ADOPT filed a lawsuit to prevent demolition.

Pastor Brian Ferguson says the church has spent more than $75,000 on legal and engineering fees. He says he's not sure the church can afford more and might need to sell.

"I guess the question would be, what would the community value more: having a historic building or continuing to have the First Lutheran Church, the historic organization that has been in continuous operation for 180 years?" Ferguson said.

OTR ADOPT Executive Director Danny Klingler agreed to drop the legal challenge in favor of mediation. He hopes to reach an agreement that preserves the 127-year-old tower.

"Our goal is and always has been to reach a win-win, meaning a solution that prevents the demolition of the bell tower, but also is in the best interest of the church and allows it to flourish and to move forward," Klingler said.

OTR ADOPT hired a different engineer to assess the tower, and the second opinion yielded a cheaper repair plan. Klingler says enough donations have been collected to cover the entire cost.

Pastor Ferguson says the alternate repair plan doesn't meet the safety standards the church leadership is comfortable with, although it would be legal under state and local building code. He says the church is ultimately liable for any damage or injury caused by a collapse.

"We are the property owner. We are the stewards of this building. We built it, we've been occupying it for 127 years now," Ferguson said. "And yet we seem to have a very small voice and say in what's happening."

Both parties agreed to the third-party mediator. Klingler says he's optimistic.

"We have a skilled mediator helping us to get past any impasse in communication," he said. "And I absolutely think that the biggest problem has been a lack of communication."

Regardless of how quickly the issue is resolved, Ferguson says a lot of financial damage is unavoidable. The church will have a congregational meeting Jan. 23 for the community to decide how to cover a $160,000 shortfall in capital fund resources for next year.

Ferguson outlined the options in a letter to church members: "[We] have $130,000 in our General Fund Reserve; we have $150,000 in the Ministry Staff Fund; our mortgage balance is $560,000; and we even received an unsolicited $940,000 as-is cash offer for the church building," he wrote. "First's Leadership Team is not offering a recommendation as to what action should be taken. Our next steps are significant and this needs to be informed by the membership of First."

Mediation is set for six hours on Friday.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.