Rock Island Baptist Church seeks to revitalize East Chattanooga

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 10/13/15. Rev. Ron Cook speaks on Tuesday, October 13, 2015 about plans to build affordable housing on property that the Rock Island Baptist Church acquired across the street from their worship facility in East Chattanooga.

An East Chattanooga church is buying up - and building up - the neighborhood.

"It's OK to wait on the private sector to come, but I know it's really difficult to build affordable housing and make money," said pastor Ron Cook of Rock Island Baptist Church, who is overseeing the church's purchase of six nearby land parcels to put homes on. "Our idea is to help develop the community ourselves."

The church's endeavor is an effort to create both jobs and affordable housing.

And instead of making money, Rock Island Baptist Church will focus on developing people's job skills and uplifting East Chattanooga, said Cook, who celebrates 15 years as pastor of the church this month.

He wants to start building houses next year.

The city plans to put out a request for proposals within the next four weeks seeking partners for the development of affordable housing, said Sandra Gober, the city's manager of community development.

Cook is welcome to apply, she said.

City Councilman Moses Freeman, who represents the community, commended the effort.

"If there is any infrastructure improvement that we could bring to the project, we would be willing to do it as a city," Freeman said. "I will certainly go to bat for him to get the city to participate."

If Cook is successful, his church will bring housing and jobs to a community entrenched with gangs and where more than a third of high school graduates have no jobs, according to the Chattanooga Comprehensive Gang Assessment released in 2012. The community of nearly 6,000 people has a crime rate more than twice as high as the national average, according to City-Data.com.

Cook has heard stories of when East Chattanooga was a desired location - a place where people were proud to live and raise their children. He wants a return to that status.

"He's talking about restabilizing the community to a valuable place, versus a place just to hang out," said James Moreland, president of the Avondale Neighborhood Association.

Housing impacts mindset, Moreland said: If a person lives in a dump, he's likely to be affected by his environment.

Cook was inspired by a meeting with the Rev. Floyd Flake, who did what he's trying to do more than 20 years ago with his Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York in Jamaica, Queens. Flake owns a multimillion-dollar operation with huge chunks of real estate, including a school, grocery store and assisted-living facilities.

"He shared that passion he had for changing the Jamaica, Queens, area himself," Cook said. "And when that bug bit me, I came back with that same thinking."

Other Chattanooga pastors have similar visions. The Rev. Floyd Whiteside and his New Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church provide affordable housing to eight families in four buildings on Washington Street.

And the Rev. Oscar Lockhart of Thankful Missionary Baptist Church purchased property near his church and started a House of Renewal Program to help women released from prison.

Rock Island purchased its latest parcel this year at 2105 Camden St. In addition to the church at 2106 Camden, the church owns land at 2101 Camden and at 2102 Camden. It owns two parcels on Bradt Street, including 1604 and 1534 Bradt St. It also owns a small piece of land on Camden that has no street number. The church has been aggressively buying for about seven years, he said.

It will pursue grants and city funding to get money for building, said Cook, who is a longtime board member of the Chattanooga Community Housing Development Organization that revitalizes low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

Plumbers, landscapers, and men with roofing experience belong to the church and will assist with building. Cook also wants to train residents to work.

He wants to build attractive single-family homes, about 1,100 square feet. And he wants to train and employ people as he does it.

"We're going to make it happen, one way or the other," said Cook. "I'm talking about affordable housing, solid employment, support for the church and long-term vision for the development of the community."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at [email protected] or 757-6431.