Council head lists options for Mount Carmel

By BUSTER WOLFE,

City officials said they cannot renovate or stabilize what’s standing of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, although a vast majority of people who attended Tuesday’s public hearing on the subject favored restoration of the church.

In an informal poll Tuesday at the City Hall public hearing, 79 percent of the people who crowded into the boardroom said they wanted the structure to be stabilized. However, state law prohibits a public entity from doing any work on private land.

Board President Carter Carroll said only three options existed for the fate of Mount Carmel.

“The city could do nothing and let it crumble in decay and take your chances on hurting an individual,” he said. “Demolish just the damaged part, or just restructure it. We won’t restructure it; state law is going to prohibit that. Citizens expressed that they wanted the city to try to refurbish and restructure the building. We looked into it and state law does not allow for that.”

Carroll said the city would make a decision on the structure later in the month. Bids for demolition of the church are expected to be opened later this month.

Hattiesburg Code Enforcement Manager Mark Jordan and Engineering Director Lamar Rutland presented the documents supporting the deteriorating status of the church. Jordan gave an outline of what had been done so far.

Three roads around the church, which is located at 1101 Main St., are closed because of the building’s condition after two engineers said the building needed to be demolished for safety reasons. Main Street is closed between East Fifth and East Sixth streets. Detour signs have been posted to assist drivers.

The church is currently in litigation with its insurance company over damages from the 2013 tornado.

Although no one offered a presentation in support of the church, congregation members spoke.

Raylawni Branch said, “That building is at a critical need. To even have a hearing on stabilizing it … what are you going to stabilize?”

Jeanette Smith, who moved to Hattiesburg in 1959, said she had seen Wards 2 – where the church is located – and 5 deteriorate over the years. 

“Recently, I was going around and looking at the poverty that needs to be demolished in Ward 2,” she said. “With the church, I would like to see the Council, the community and all Christians follow the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others and you would have done unto you.’”

Smith said she would like to see people work together to get funds to help the church, but she said she sees double standards.

“As long as I have been in Hattiesburg, I thought I would see things change,” she said. “Instead of us moving forward, we are actually moving backward, finding discrimination under the law. … My people don’t know how extensive it is, this double standard. Everything was like Midtown and Ward 4; everything is in Ward 4. We have been neglected for so long in Wards 2 and 5. We don’t have decent streets; they were not poured right and they were not built right.” 

Smith said the people who need help aren’t receiving it.

“We need to consider the people that deserve it the most and not go around here rewarding people that already have,” she said. “There is just so much that is deteriorated around here.” 

Dr. Margaret Dwight Shelton, a local historian, said the church building could be used for other purposes.

“There are many things you can do with that building instead of destroying it,” she said. “I’ve seen too many buildings in the African-American community destroyed because of lack of research, reading and not knowing the history.”

Shelton said the City Council should use fairness in its decision.

“You cannot turn your back on Mount Carmel,” she said. “Whether you like any of the leadership of Mount Carmel, it’s beyond that; it’s beyond any of that. It’s about fairness. It’s about righteousness and injustice. It’s about having a part of Hattiesburg history preserved as well as the missing pages of the United States of America.”

Other fundraising efforts have been successful, Smith said.

“Call on all citizens to do what is right, what is fair and what is just,” she said. “You can find that money or you can get some of those people who are talking about $2.6 million and let them donate some of their time and energy. And let some of us donate some of our time and energy as well to the preservation and restoration of Mount Carmel Baptist Church.”

Pastor Gabriel Bobbett said he disputed the findings of the engineers, who were only trying to “cover their tails.”

“That building is not going to fall as quickly as some architects claim because they don’t want to take a chance and lose their license if something did happen,” he said. “So they are not going to step out and say, ‘That’s not going to happen,’ because that would hurt their profits in the long run. So to cover their tails, they want to say, ‘Tear it down,’ because that is what they are expected to say and that’s what they’re paid to say.”

Other builders and contractors have said the building will not fall, Bobbett said.

“(They) take a double-take at me and say, ‘This building is not going to come down ’” he said. “‘Even if you do demo, this building is not going to easily come down.’ So I want to contradict what some of the people are saying. Those same people who had been criticizing Mount Carmel should have been more apt to help Mount Carmel, rather than wait and see what’s going to happen so they can destroy Mount Carmel.”

Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado – who voted against holding the public hearing and sending out demolition bids – said previous City Councils have found a way to fund things.

“I am saying that the City of Hattiesburg has set a precedent for coming up with creative ways to support an entity that seems to be deserving,” she said. “I don’t matter who’s paying it; it’s on your credit. I’m just saying that there may be some creative way that we can help Mount Carmel, or there may not be; I don’t know.”