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A church divided

Yankton Community Fellowship wants to tear down its old building; a neighbor wants to rehabilitate it

MARK MILLER - The old church building on the Yankton Community Fellowship's property has become the focal point of a dispute between the church and an outspoken neighbor, Peg Tarbell.To Yankton Community Fellowship, its old building is just that.

“It’s a building. It’s a tool. It’s like a car, or a van, or anything else. It’s a tool to be used. And all tools wear out,” says Rick Worlitz, the church’s senior pastor.

But to Peg Tarbell, who lives just down the hill from the moldering structure, it’s something special.

Tarbell’s great-grandfather donated the land where the Yankton Baptist Church was built, around the turn of the last century. She went to services there as a young girl, although she no longer attends the Yankton Community Fellowship, as the congregation is now known.

“They have changed their designation, and they’re no longer a conservative Baptist church, and so it’s not my cup of tea,” Tarbell says. “My heart goes with the old church.”

But the building is decaying, and its days may be numbered.

Over the years after its construction, Worlitz says, the building was expanded several times to accommodate a growing congregation. To hear him describe it, the additions were often haphazard and crude.

“They cut a hole in the wall, put a lean-to roof out, put walls around it, ‘Hey, there we are,’” says Worlitz, sitting in his office inside the new Yankton Community Fellowship building, which was constructed in the 1970s.

He adds, “When they built this place ... the church had grown to the place where they’re just busting at the seams, they couldn’t accommodate any more. So they decided that they had to build a new facility, and actually, this is only half of what they originally planned to build.”

COURTESY OF YANKTON COMMUNITY FELLOWSHIP - A historical photo of the Yankton Baptist Church from the 1940s shows the building before it was modified with structural additions on both sides. An inscription on the back of the original print states it was gifted to the church by the Tarbell family.Church eyes demolition of old building

Originally, the old church was slated to be demolished, according to Worlitz. But because the new building ended up being smaller than what was anticipated, the congregation opted not to tear its former home down.

For decades, it was used as an auxiliary space — for a youth ministry, and then a children’s ministry, and now, only for miscellaneous storage. The pastor says it is now considered unsafe for children to use due to the state of disrepair it has fallen into, after more than a century standing atop the hill in Yankton.

Right now, much of the church's work is with people recovering from addiction and former criminals trying to reform and right themselves. If the church had more space, Worlitz adds, “We have a lot of stuff we’d love to offer.”

The church has continued to grow, and Worlitz says it is again planning an expansion. While the footprint won’t impinge upon the old building, the church does want to have the land available, he says.

“Since ... we don’t see justification in pouring money into it, then we only have another option,” says Worlitz. “You can either let it stand there and fall down, or you can take it down so it has a decent end instead of a yucky end.”

Because of her family connections, Tarbell was asked to help out during the church’s 120th anniversary celebration in 2013. When she learned that the old building might be torn down, she sprang into action — both negotiating with the church to try to find some agreement to preserve it, and rallying the Yankton community with a petition she says collected about 250 signatures from people who wanted to keep the building.

“I really believe that ... I surprised them,” she says now. “I really think they didn’t think anybody cared about the old church. And so when they found out that I did, and all these other people in Yankton did, I think they were caught off-guard.”

But Worlitz says the church found it difficult to work with Tarbell, who started a nonprofit group called the Old Yankton Church Historic Preservation Organization later in 2013.

“We originally entertained her thinking, even though she was kind of abrasive in how she went about it,” he says.

The church offered to give Tarbell the building, as long as she removed it from the Yankton Community Fellowship’s land and found a new home for it. She declined — because of the additions, the whole building could not survive such a move, and besides, it would remove it from its original spot on the hill, she argues.

“If it comes right down to it, we may try to do that, but all of us involved feel like even if we did that today, it would still be a loss, because it wouldn’t be the building it is today,” says Tarbell.

Disagreement about building persists

Tarbell contends that if the church acquiesced to her wish — allowing her group to restore the old building and operate it as a museum on the land across the parking lot from the Yankton Community Fellowship building, at the volunteers’ expense — it would be a “win-win,” drawing new visitors and taking care of the structure out of the church’s hands.

“Frankly, what I don’t understand is if it’s our money, what does that matter to him? If we’re taking over complete and total responsibility for that building ... why would he worry about how much money we’re spending?” Tarbell asks, referring to Worlitz. “We’re not asking them to spend a dime or lift a hammer or have any ongoing, long-term responsibilities to the building. So I don’t understand that.”

Conversely, Worlitz says he doesn’t understand the desire to restore the church as-is, including its later add-ons.

“It would be cheaper, cost-wise, to tear the whole thing down and build a replica of the original building, which I would think would be a pretty cool deal,” he says, adding, “The building, it’s not a cute little chapel. You know, it was at one time, but it’s just not a cute little chapel.”

Tarbell disagrees. She admits she has not obtained cost estimates for what she wants to do with the building, but she suggests restoration would cost $30,000 to $50,000, and she is adamant the local community is behind her.

“I really don’t doubt that we have support,” she says. “The problem is ... it’s kind of like shooting in a barrel. You don’t even know what you’re supposed to aim at.”

The church and Tarbell’s group have no affiliation anymore. The congregation voted last summer to stop working with the organization, amid mounting frustration on both sides.

Since then, Tarbell has taken her campaign to social media, such as Facebook, and written to local newspapers — in an effort, she told the Spotlight last year, to go around the church elders and appeal to the congregation directly.

Tarbell insists now that she never meant to cause offense, and she expresses dismay at the feud that has arisen from her efforts to restore the old building.

“I never intended to offend anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “I thought this would be a coming-together of a community.”

Although Worlitz is critical of Tarbell’s methods, as well as her intransigence, he is not wholly unsympathetic.

“She’s doing what she thinks is a good deal. I’m just frustrated because of the way that she’s going about it,” he says. “She’s not seeing anything other than just wanting to restore a piece of fond memories from childhood — which I get. It’s just that some things are worth restoring; some things aren’t.”

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