GRANITE CITY — A century-old church becomes a theater, long-vacant buildings become thriving businesses and Granite City continues its struggle to bring life back to downtown.
The First Baptist Church of Granite City has brought worshippers together for more than 110 years, and at one time the building would be packed on Sunday morning, according to Pastor Charles West. But times have changed, and the aging congregation is down to only a dozen or so on an average Sunday.
"People were moving out of the city, we got smaller and we couldn't do the children's programs we used to have," West said.
So the church made the difficult decision to hand the building over to someone else: Alfresco Productions, a local arts group dedicated to building and showcasing an artistic community in Granite City.
It was not an easy decision for the members of First Baptist, West said. "There is so much emotional attachment to something of that nature," he said. "Many of the members grew up there, got married there and have tremendous memories of the church. ... But it's been a matter of how long can we go on."
And they will not have to leave: Brenda Whitaker, city councilwoman and director of Alfresco Productions, said the church members will continue to meet in the building once it changes hands.
"It will be in our name, but we will want them to be a part of it," Whitaker said. "They have cared for this building for years and kept it alive."
It was important to both groups that the church would not fall vacant.
"Architecturally it's a beautiful building ... and something useful will be done with it," West said.
In fact, Alfresco already had a test run: the group hosted the swing choir from Granite City High School shortly before Christmas for a program called "Heaven and Nature Swing," and the hall was packed to standing-room-only.
Whitaker plans to host summer theater, musical acts, art shows and more in the building, once some work has been done. "We won't have anything until April, since there's some upgrades we'll have to do," she said. It needs handicapped-accessible bathrooms, an elevator and other renovations, she said.
Alfresco is the group behind a number of downtown Granite City projects. It organizes the Melting Pot Market, a farmers market with plenty of artisans and handmade goods. There's also the Cutting Room Haunted House in the old YMCA building. Whitaker also tapped the city's mainstay -- steelwork -- to create the Six Mile Sculpture Works festival in October. Artists from around the country set up working furnaces to cast sculptures before the public, using the same processes used at U.S. Steel around the corner.
"It's just like the steel industry we're known for," Whitaker said.
Alfresco is not a city project and no city money is going into it, Whitaker said. But in her role as a councilwoman, she is chairwoman of the downtown revitalization committee and supports Mayor Ed Hagnauer's priorities for downtown.
Alfresco's project at the church is being cheered by other downtown businesses, as part of a growing focus on downtown. Stacie Pope, co-owner of BSR Books, is glad Alfresco is developing the theater project.
"(Whitaker) is very active in downtown, and when she says she wants to do something, she gets it done," Pope said. "We're looking forward to the foot traffic."
In the past couple of years, a number of businesses have opened downtown, including two art galleries, a few vintage shops and a pizzeria. Recently Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation also cut the ribbon on a new health care center near Gateway Regional Medical Center.
The city has renovated a building into a movie theater that Whitaker said is doing very well. "Every month it makes back what it needs to, and exceeds it," she said. "We've always said, 'as long as it can pay for itself,' and it's certainly done that."
BSR Books opened only a few months after the movie theater, and Pope has seen several businesses open since then.
"It's going well, but it's slow because of the economy," she said. "Some of the businesses that opened five years ago have had to close. But we've seen a lot more opening than closing ... In the end it will work out, because there are constantly new things being added and the people down here are dedicated to bringing it back."
As a lifelong resident, Tony Aiello can remember when downtown Granite City was a vibrant business district in the 1970s, before businesses moved out by the interstate.
"The uptown part where all the stores are, that was all down here years ago," Aiello said. "It kind of got put to the wayside for several years."
But Aiello wanted to be part of bringing back downtown, and that's why he decided to open Aiello's Pizzeria there. He said Whitaker and Hagnauer helped him find a building. He spent a year renovating and installing a 1960s brick oven for his pizzas, and now he has lunch traffic from multiple locations.
"It is on the upswing, I believe that. And I wanted to be a part of it," he said. "In the next 12 to 24 months, I think there'll be a lot more businesses here."
Whitaker agrees; she said there are business interests buying up more properties in downtown Granite City for renovation.
"It doesn't happen overnight, but downtowns don't fail overnight either," Whitaker said.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at email@example.com or 239-2501.