Hattiesburg City Hall was packed Tuesday night for a public hearing regarding the future of a building at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.
The hearing gave members of the church and community an opportunity to voice their opinions on proposed plans to demolish the building that city leaders and engineers have determined is unsafe, unstable and in imminent danger of collapse.
"Are we going to destroy a church? A historical edifice, that is part of the national story," said one church member. "That is a part of Hattiesburg and the state of Mississippi, or are we going to preserve it?"
Another woman, who said she is not a member of the church but lives on Main Street, said something needed to be done with the property.
"That building is in a critical need. To have a hearing on stabilizing it, what are we going to stabilize?"
According to documents released by the city, church leaders were first made aware of the danger of the structure in April of 2016 after the church hired an architectural firm to assess the building. In that assessment, a principal architect stated the building was "unstable, unsafe and in various stages of imminent collapse."
"Apologize to the city, the council to the community that we've gotten to this point. It should have never gotten to this point," said Mt. Carmel Pastor Gabriel Bobbett. "But, it didn't get to the point because Mt. Carmel wanted it to get to this point, it got to this point because the legal systems that didn't work in favor of Mt Carmel for whatever reasons."
Currently, a portion of North Main Street is closed due to the "state of imminent danger" of the structure. Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker said that option was "obviously not ideal, but our priority is the safety of our citizens" when closing that road on July 14th.
"Three different professional firms all believe the church is in imminent danger of collapse," said city engineer Lamar Rutland Tuesday.
The State Bank of Texas, who is the church's mortgage lender, said the bank will not allocate and additional resources to making sure the property is no longer a threat to public safety.
Many church members called for the city to stabilize the building, some others asked for the city to rebuild. Estimated costs for those projects were presented at $2.6 million and over $7 million. But, neither of those are options if the church does not have money for the project.
Legally, the city of Hattiesburg has two options moving forward. The city can demolish the property, deemed unsafe and a menace to the community, or take no action at all. A municipality cannot fund a private entity, in this case, that is Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.
The city is currently accepting bids for demolition on the building. Rutland said an estimated cost to do that is over $500,000.
Hattiesburg City Council President Carter Carroll said the safety of residents is the city's top priority.
"We need to open up Main Street back to travel to and from downtown, so we just need to look at the options at what is best for the citizens of Hattiesburg and probably demolition is going to be the safest thing for them," Carroll said.
Carroll said council will probably look at bids for demolition at the end of this month and will move forward as necessary at that time.