The Denison Planning & Zoning Commission granted initial approval Tuesday to a zoning change for the former site of a Center Cross Ministries soup kitchen on downtown Denison’s Fannin Avenue. The action signaled the end of nearly seven months of talks and debates about the future of the soup kitchen’s operations in the building.
This comes after the ministry and city reached a short-term agreement in November to serve out of the Denison Public Library and prepare food through St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. However the library needs the room starting next week to house a General Educational Development program in partnership with Grayson College.
“I really think they are going to be able to find a permanent location,” Denison Development Services Director Gabe Reaume said Tuesday. “They have a lot of people pulling for them, the city included.”
The zoning request was placed by Marla Heath, owner of the building. Under the request, Heath, who was not in attendance Tuesday, asked to change the zoning from commercial to a multifamily district. Reaume said he was unaware of any immediate plans for the building.
“It needs some significant work, but I think she wants to retain ownership of the building,” he said.
The debate over the soup kitchen started in June when Terri and Alan Bernard, organizers for the ministry, went before the Zoning Board of Adjustments to request a variance to the 12 parking spaces required for the operation under current city code, as the building only had one parking space available. Alan Bernard said his plans were to use the building to prepare and serve food to the homeless residents of downtown Denison.
Following this, the city raised additional concerns about the condition of the building and renovations and improvements that would be needed to bring it up to code. These requirements included modern wiring, repairs to the roof and western wall, among others. City officials also raised concerns that no health inspection had been conducted by the Grayson County Health Department. Officials also felt the site’s proximity to residential neighborhoods also made it a poor location for the operation.
As these debates were ongoing, Center Cross Ministries continued to work at the facility and served food outside.
These ongoing issues ultimately lead the city to issue a letter asking organizers to cease operations until code and zoning issues could be resolved. City officials also cited increased vagrancy complaints and complaints from neighbors as factors in the decision to stop operations.
“I have said over this last four and a half months, if God wants to take this blessing away from me, he can,” Bernard said during a meeting with city officials in November. “And I want you to know, through your actions, he has taken it away because you are sitting in the seats you are because he put you there.”
Despite the closure of the facility, this ultimately lead to conversations with the city and other service organizations. Through these conversations, Bernard was able to partner with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the public library.
“This is a population that the library already serves and has been an underserved population in the past,” Library Director Kimberly Bowen said in November. “We hope that this will open doors for them to our other services.”
Bowen said the library has had few issues with the operations and the decision to stop was based on a prior obligation to the college. When asked about any concerns with the soup kitchen, Bowen said there had been some issues with littering, smoking and vagrancy at the entrance to the building. Additionally, some library patrons reported aggressive panhandling at the entrance, Bowen said.
Reaume said he and organizers for the ministry have worked with community members to help find a more permanent location. Denison Development Alliance President Tony Kaai said he was working to set up negotiations on a former doughnut shop on Morton Street as a possible site. However, owners of the shop have yet to return phone calls, Kaai said.
When asked for comment about the zoning change, Bernard said he felt it was caused by additional pressure from the city to get them out of the Fannin Street location. Items that were in storage at the building have since been removed and are currently being stored in Bernard’s own personal garage, he said.
Bernard said he plans to continue to minister to those in need starting next week, even if it means going to the streets to do so. As he continues to look for a more permanent option, Bernard said he will continue to reach out to the local ministerial alliance for support and assistance.