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Waiting in Vain?

While Chesterfield County searches for a mall developer, a black church waits patiently in the wings — with a $9 million check.

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"The mall is yours," a voice told Parson.

As head pastor of the Richmond Christian Center, Parson takes these directives seriously. The next day, he got a call from a Chesterfield County official who informed him that yet another developer had backed out of the mall deal.

Divine intervention? Parson certainly thinks so.

"That may be a sign that the Lord wants us to have the property," he says. On it, his church wants to build a 5,000-seat sanctuary.

To date, however, Chesterfield County and God have been at odds over the mall's future. Cloverleaf, which opened in 1972, has no department-store anchors left and only a smattering of independent retailers still operating in the mall.

Philadelphia Management and Cos., the most recent developer working with the county to redevelop the ailing mall and its surrounding 45 acres, officially backed out in November. Before that the county also broke ties with another developer, Chesapeake Realty Ventures LLC. Meanwhile, Parson and his 4,000-member church remain interested in the property.

County officials are banking on a developer to purchase the mall so it can recoup the $9 million Chesterfield spent to acquire Cloverleaf in 2004. But that's been a tough sell. Access to the site is cumbersome, and the mall sits in a dying retail corridor in eastern Midlothian. The county's expensive vision of tearing down the mall — replacing it with a mixed-use residential, office and retail development — hasn't helped.

Meanwhile, Parson says his church is standing by, ready and willing to cut the county a check. Parson says his congregation is even willing to sign a legal agreement that ensures Cloverleaf is developed in accordance with the county's wishes.

"We have 15 years of experience in development," Parson says, referring to the church's development arm, Southside Community Development & Housing Corp. "What's the holdup? The church is the most solid, stable, influential institution in the community. Why is the county preventing the church from doing the development?"

Tom Jacobson, the county's director of community revitalization, has maintained that giving the property over to the church wouldn't be in the best interest of the county. But, he says, the church has been kept in the loop. Recently, he asked Parson if he would be willing to meet with a new developer in early April to discuss a possible partnership.

"We have promised the church to give their pastor's name and phone number to future developers," Jacobson says.

Parson isn't holding his breath. It's a promise he's heard before. Philadelphia Management told the church that it would need the entire property to make its development profitable, Parson says. Then the developer stopped taking his calls.

"We are willing to pay $9 million dollars to get this property," Parson says. "It would probably take 60 to 90 days to close. We could get the financing for that now."

Parson wouldn't reveal the names of his proposed lenders, but says several banks, including one from New York that specializes in church financing, have promised to approve the loan when the church is ready. Churches, which tend to have stable income streams and are known for paying off loans early, are widely viewed as relatively low-risk investments for banking institutions.

W. Avon Drake, an associate professor of African-American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says Parson's Richmond Christian Center, also known as Faith Alive International Ministries, would be a positive anchor for the community in that part of Chesterfield, which has seen demographics shift over the years. Today, many of the surrounding residential neighborhoods are poorer, with more black and Hispanic families. A wealthy church with many middle-class black families would be a strong role model for the rest of the community, Drake says.

As for the county's resistance, Drake, who spoke to Style about the issue in November, puts it bluntly: If a prominent white church proposed developing the aging mall, the reaction would be different.

"I think they do not want a black institution of presence in that area of Chesterfield County that could develop into a power base of sorts for blacks," Drake says. "I have no doubt."

The county's history of blocking buses from the city entering the county — even when the business community pined for them — is a case in point, Drake says. Years ago the county refused to allow the Greater Richmond Transit Co. to cross the county line in order to pick up and drop off patrons at Cloverleaf, instead forcing residents to cross underneath the busy Chippenham Parkway overpass.

Parson, however, refuses to "play the race card." He says it is curious how the county has repeatedly rebuffed his church and his money, considering the county's wishes to recoup its investment in the Cloverleaf property. And he says he's turned away attorneys who have contacted him about a possible lawsuit. In the summer of 2004, days after the county became aware that the church had a preliminary contract with the former owner of Cloverleaf, the county made a bid for the property.

"I don't want to fight," Parson says. "I just put it in the hands of the Lord." S

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