Our View: A church in the Castle provides a service -- for now
The last thing downtown Rochester needs is a newly restored historic landmark that's largely empty.
Editor's note: This editorial was discussed and written prior to the news Friday afternoon that Cameo, the restaurant in the basement of the Castle, had filed a civil complaint against the building owners .
In late 2017, the city of Rochester sold the former Rochester Armory to an ownership group called Castle Community LLC.
The new owners had big plans for the building, and after a year of top-to-bottom remodeling, Castle Community opened in Oct 2018 as a rejuvenated, multi-use facility devoted to the arts and culture.
Vision had become reality. At long last Rochester had a dedicated downtown space where artists could produce, market and sell their creations, and where Rochester residents and visitors alike could dine, browse for used books, take a yoga class, listen to vintage albums and enjoy live music and theatrical productions.
Then, during the summer of 2019, the performance space on the Castle's third floor also became a place of worship when Echo Church began holding Sunday services there – and just like that, the seeds of future discord were planted.
Not that Echo Church did anything wrong. In the ongoing, complex saga about what is happening and will happen at Castle Community, Echo Church is the most blameless entity involved.
The 2017 deal between the city of Rochester and the Castle Community ownership group mandated that for five years after the purchase, the property must be used “with the objective of advancing the arts and cultural offerings in the City of Rochester.” Any use not in keeping with that requirement required approval from the city.
We don't know if the Castle's owners asked for and received the city's approval for hosting church services, but we recall no public outcry about the church renting space on Sunday mornings in 2019. (It seems that the third-floor meeting space was available for rent to pretty much any organization that wanted it.) If other tenants in the building objected to the church's presence, they didn't voice those objections to city officials – or if they did, they did so very quietly.
Then COVID-19 hit in January 2020, and the Castle's arts-related businesses soon went dark. Its owners needed revenue, and on Sept. 14, 2020, they announced that Echo Church had agreed to a one-year lease that included Sunday services in Les Fields Hall on the third floor as well as weekday use of the former arts and retail spaces on the second floor.
The ownership group offered this explanation: “This is not an end to the Castle's community engagement through arts and culture, it is the way to make sure it lives on.”
Again, we are not aware that the Castle Community asked for or received any formal approval from city officials before making this deal, but we believe the phrase “any port in a storm” should apply in this case. Without Echo Church, the Castle Community might have gone belly-up, so we would have had a hard time arguing against this arrangement.
But times change. The church's original lease expired last September, and on Nov. 11 the city formally informed Castle Community that renting space to Echo Church constitutes a breach of the original contract's terms. Castle Community has until Jan. 10 to rectify the situation, and failure to do so would open the door to legal action by the city.
For now, that should be the option of last resort -- and not just because we could envision a heated debate about whether religious services should be considered "cultural" activities, perhaps even more so than a restaurant or coffee shop.
We remain in the grip of a global pandemic, and while former Castle tenants Threshold Arts and Queen City Coffee and Juice have expressed an interest in returning to the building, nothing has been finalized. We can confidently state that if Echo Church were told to vacate the premises, it would take months, perhaps a year or more, for Castle Community to fill its building with new tenants – and that's assuming that by spring the COVID-19 pandemic is but a bad memory.
We hope that's the case, but what if it isn't?
While the city might be within its rights to end the Castle's so-called “COVID sabbatical” and demand strict adherence to the letter of the original contract, such a move could prove to be both shortsighted and financially unwise. The last thing downtown Rochester needs is a newly restored historic landmark that's largely empty.
So, if Echo Church's leadership is willing to operate on a continuing series of 60-day leases, knowing that at some point the congregation will have to vacate on short notice, then we see no reason to hurry them out right now.
And, to those who might argue that Castle Community will simply let the church hang around until the five-year contractual agreement with the city ends later this year, we'd offer this suggestion; namely, that in exchange for allowing the Castle's owners this kind of latitude, the city should seek and receive a two-year extension of the original deal.
While we are glad that Echo Church is putting the Castle to good use, we still want the building to become the bustling, seven-days-a-week center of a thriving Rochester arts community. And we hope the local arts community will find it possible to fill the space to keep it viable.