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Calvary Baptist Church sees hope in vacant Oak Hollow Community Center

| Friday, Oct. 23, 2009

An Irwin church plans to buy the former Oak Hollow Community Center in North Huntingdon.

The Rev. Mark Shaffer, of Calvary Baptist Church, said the church is scheduled to close on the property before Nov. 28. The move could reopen the 13-acre site as a recreation facility.

"Our intention is to continue to use it to benefit the community," he said. "But there is a lot of homework and research we need to do as we look into what the community needs and how to use it."

Shaffer said church members have not made any decisions, although he went before the North Huntingdon zoning hearing board earlier this month.

Township planner and Engineer Andrew Blenko said Calvary Baptist approached the board for a special exception to use the property as a recreational facility.

The area is zoned as open space, which generally is given to vacant land or property without residential or business use.

Blenko said the exception keeps the township from rezoning the area into a business district, which would allow Calvary Baptist to put just about any type of business on the site.

"If they were to move the church up there, they would need another special exception," he said. "A special exception carves out a specific permitted use for land to limit what is allowed and not allowed."

The zoning hearing board is expected to either grant or deny the special exception at its Nov. 3 meeting.

Calvary Baptist has not submitted any formal plans, but its presentation was met with a positive reception because it could bring the vacant facility back in use, Blenko said.

The building has been empty since March 31, after Oak Hollow Community Center closed after three years. Prior to closing, the center offered swimming, gymnastics, karate, aerobics classes and access to a fully equipped fitness center with a membership.

Before then, the building was the site of the Oak Hollow YMCA, which was dissolved after the Committee on Membership Standards of the national YMCA pulled its charter. It reopened without a charter in May 2006.

The center's board blamed the closing on tough economic times.

Since closing, the building sat empty and the region has been without a community center.

"I think the YMCA was doing a good job, but it was just not in the position to move forward," Shaffer said. "But I think there is an opportunity to move forward with their plan."

Engineers and architects have been examining the building and property to help Calvary Baptist determine if the project is feasible, Shaffer said.

Earlier this month, the Norwin Regional Recreation Committee had identified the former YMCA site as a potential location for a recreation facility. But the committee didn't show interest because it considered the site too small.

Committee member Roy Lenhardt said he has not spoken to Calvary Baptist representatives about their plans, but he doesn't believe their plans will significantly impact his group's plans.

"The facility we want to build would be on a larger scale, so this would have a nominal effect on what we are trying to do," he said. "We're talking about two different caliber projects."

Lenhardt said the Regional Recreation Committee is scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday at North Huntingdon Town House to discuss more possible sites for a potential center.

Township officials identified 13 sites throughout North Huntingdon that meet the committee's specifications. Lenhardt said the committee will narrow the 13 sites down to four at the meeting.

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