A sign giving notice of the Conway Planning Commission meeting at 7 p.m. Monday is displayed next to the entrance of Soul Food Cafe Mission’s new facility at 1717 S. Donaghey Ave. The mission is requesting a conditional-use permit to conduct religious activities, and the Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the City Council. Two of the mission’s clients, Virginia Cogdell, bottom left, and Evelyn Wilson talk about the objections they’ve heard to the ministry’s location.
The Rev. Rick Harvey, co-executive director of Soul Food Cafe Mission in Conway, said people who object to the mission operating in its new building have misconceptions about the clients it serves, and he has retained an attorney to help the ministry obtain a conditional-use permit.
Harvey said Abigail Southerland of Franklin, Tennessee, senior litigation counselor with the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., will attend Monday’s Conway Planning Commission meeting. The center is representing the mission for free.
The agenda includes the mission’s request for a conditional-use permit to conduct religious activities in its nearly completed facility at 1717 S. Donaghey Ave.
The Planning Commission makes recommendations to the Conway City Council.
Harvey said the all-volunteer mission that he and his wife, Traci, founded wants to continue to serve clients — providing free hot meals, clothing, haircuts, showers and church services one day a week — as it has for the past 16 years in other locations in Conway.
Opponents have said the mission is too close to neighborhoods, to Ellen Smith Elementary School and to Kidz University day care. The Soul Food Cafe Mission’s 6-acre site is south of the Spring Valley subdivision and east of the Salem Woods subdivision.
The biggest bone of contention seemed to be a rezoning request, which the mission withdrew in September, to get a homeless-shelter designation. Harvey said the
mission wanted to allow overnight emergency stays for a maximum of seven days.
“The neighborhood felt like we were going to bring in a bunch of robbers and murderers and pedophiles,” Harvey said.
Harvey said the gesture of pulling the rezoning request was meant as an olive branch.
“Instead of it being goodwill, [the neighbors] said, ‘We don’t even want you to operate at all,’ Harvey said. “It’s like they smelled blood in the water. What we did to make peace, they saw as weakness.”
Pros and cons discussed at meeting
More than 450 people, including residents of nearby neighborhoods, signed two petitions to keep the mission from operating in its new facility, according to minutes of the Aug. 21 Conway Planning Commission meeting.
The rezoning request was still on the table at this point.
Thomas Vinson, an attorney with Millar Jiles in Conway, represented Kidz University at the meeting. Vinson was one of 20 people who were allowed to speak in opposition to the request at the August meeting. Vinson talked about increased crime and drug use among the homeless. He said the mission’s new facility is 885 feet from the day care.
Phone messages left for Vinson last week were not returned.
Harvey said that “out of 100 percent of all the clients we help, 4.6 percent are homeless.”
Residents who opposed the move also cited the lack of sidewalks on South Donaghey Avenue, which they said would increase foot traffic through their neighborhoods. Several residents who spoke at the Planning Commission meeting expressed concern for the safety of their children.
Among those who spoke against the rezoning were real estate agents and a developer.
Conway attorney Landon Sanders presented the Spring Valley subdivision petition at the meeting. He said residents who signed are not opposed to “rehabilitation of the homeless” but are concerned about loitering, safety, crime, drug use and lowering of property values. He asked the commission for a unanimous denial of the rezoning and conditional-use permit.
Sanders said he lived in the Spring Valley subdivision until June.
Melissa Britt, representing the South Wind subdivision, presented a petition signed by 250 of the subdivision’s residents who oppose the homeless-shelter designation.
Although she said residents have compassion for the individuals served, Britt said the facility has increased foot traffic in the area. She said that in one week, she saw a man walking through her neighborhood who was muttering to himself and another who was obviously intoxicated, and heard of a man who urinated in a yard where children were playing.
“We hope a compromise can be found,” she said.
Also at the meeting, 15 people spoke in favor of Soul Food Cafe Mission’s request.
Holly Michael, a mission volunteer and the mother of Ellen Smith Elementary School students, said her experience has been “seeing people get jobs and get stable, seeing people experience love they may not have experienced in the past. What I’m seeing is them moving into a higher level of functioning in society and being a positive role model of experiencing new things in their lives.”
The commission defeated a motion to approve the conditional-use and rezoning requests 3-5, with two members absent; however, a denial of a request requires six votes (a majority of the 10-member commission). This means the requests were forwarded to the City Council without a recommendation.
Pulling the rezoning request
On Aug. 22, the City Council tabled the matter to allow Soul Food Cafe Mission and the neighborhoods more time. At the next council meeting on Sept. 12, David Hogue, a Soul Food Cafe Mission board member and the Faulkner County attorney, asked that the group’s request be withdrawn.
Hogue said that although “we’re trying to do a good thing,” he thought it was best to withdraw the request in order to remove the rezoning from it.
“I think, legally, the city has a good argument for not zoning it that way,” he said.
The proposal was to rezone the property from A-1, agricultural, to R2-A, residential, to allow for it to be designated as a homeless shelter. Rezoning to R2-A would have allowed duplexes on the property, which Harvey said he never intended to build.
Hogue said, “If the City Council is as against it as they are, and all these people coming in are [against it] … and law is not on our side, we might as well pull that and take a different route. We hoped, honestly, when we did that, people would see us as, ‘OK, they’re trying to be reasonable, and we’re going to be reasonable back.’ It didn’t happen that way.”
‘They were all behind it’
Harvey said Soul Food Cafe Mission has been in a neighborhood in each of its locations, which include its current site in Conway First Church of the Nazarene on Scott Street in Conway.
“We’ve never had any complaints by anyone — not one in 16 years,” he said. The Nazarene church is remodeling and needs the space that Soul Food Cafe Mission uses, Harvey said.
The Rev. Tim Britton, pastor of First Church of the Nazarene and a resident of the South Wind subdivision, spoke in favor of the ministry at the Planning Commission meeting.
Harvey said the mission has spent 10 years building the facility on Donaghey Avenue because the ministry doesn’t have a lot of money, and most of the work was donated, as well as the 6 acres. The property was annexed into the city in 2008.
He said city officials have known since the beginning what the mission planned to do at the Donaghey Avenue site. Harvey said he met with architects and city officials, including Planning Director Bryan Patrick, a few years ago.
“They were all behind it,” Harvey said.
Patrick said his opinion is that any activities done when the property was annexed are grandfathered in.
“I don’t know what all they were doing,” Patrick said. “What I would say and my conversation with the city attorney — is that they are grandfathered in for storage, food, clothes, whatever, basically a warehouse as far as grandfathered land use. That’s my take on it.”
Patrick said he hasn’t given an opinion on whether the property could be used for religious activities.
“I’m going to hold comment until we have our public hearing,” he said. “I didn’t really give a recommendation on it. [Soul Food Cafe Mission hasn’t] shared a whole lot with us about what they want to do, so I don’t have a good standing on that at this point.”
Jerry Rye, chairman of the Planning Commission’s Conditional-Use Committee, voted against the rezoning and conditional use at the Aug. 22 meeting.
“We had a hung jury, so to speak,” he said.
Rye said he was originally in favor of the rezoning, which would have allowed the mission to be used as a shelter.
“The reason I ultimately voted against this is because there was a lot of transient traffic, people going in and out of their facility. They currently don’t have a fence around their facility that protects their property from the neighborhood,” he said.
Rye said he and other commissioners thought a barrier was important when the mission was going to be used for overnight stays.
He said about 200 people attended the meeting.
“It was a very contentious night,” Rye said. “There was a lot of emotion on both sides. I thought the Soul Food Cafe people did a pretty good job of presenting their case.”
Although Rye said he can’t speculate on how commissioners will vote Monday, “as long as they’re not housing people, I think it will be less contentious. All the commissioners will have an opinion, and what Rick and those guys present will obviously weigh in,” he said. “We don’t like to send anything to the council without a recommendation.”
Request to operate as a church
The 14,400-square-foot building has passed all inspections, including one by the Arkansas Department of Health, and was issued a certificate of occupancy from the city in October, Harvey said.
“We did all the things they asked us to do,” Harvey said.
It has a commercial kitchen, storage, restrooms and a stage for worship services.
Hogue said that despite his lack of confidence in the rezoning chances, he believes the mission’s right to operate as a church is clear.
“We do have the law on our side to run it like a church. I can’t see any reason that property can’t be used as a church. There are things that come along with being used as a church, and those may not be things that everybody over there likes,” he said.
“If people say, ‘Well, you can run it like a church as long as you don’t feed people out of that location,’ show me a church that nobody ever feeds people. Or, if they say you can’t stay past 10, show me a church that nobody ever stays past 10,” Hogue said.
“We don’t want to ruin anybody’s property values and safety. We have a right to use our property just like everybody else does,” he said.
“I guarantee if some church that was not Soul Food Cafe wanted to put a church over there and run it as a church, the City Council and neighbors of that property would probably not object,” Hogue said. “This particular church has what most people consider a less-than-desirable congregation; then people are objecting.
“So, it’s not homelessness, because most of the people we’ve been serving downtown aren’t homeless. They just don’t have a lot of money; they’re trying to get help.”
Southerland said she will attend Monday night’s meeting to help assist the mission with its conditional-use request.
“Rick contacted us, and I did a little looking into the ministry and am very impressed. They’ve had 25 years assisting those in the community with an important, immediate need and providing hope to those people.”
Harvey said the mission’s outreach originally started in the 1990s at a church of which he was pastor.
“We are a church,” he said.
Southerland said there are “misconceptions about what the use of the property will involve, and also misconceptions that there may be no federal laws that apply to a local zoning process, and there are.”
She said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act applies to Soul Food Cafe Mission.
“It’s a federal law designed to protect religious assemblies and institutions with land use,” she said. “It requires legitimate, compelling reasons for denying a ministry.”
Southerland said that although the Planning Commission “definitely has an obligation to hear public comments and thoughts on the conditional-use permit, unfounded fears on what the ministry might bring or the ministry’s use and what that looks like on the property are not compelling reasons to deny” the request.
Harvey said if the conditional use to operate as a church isn’t approved, the only activities the mission can have in the building are warehousing, sorting of clothes and food boxes, but no food preparation “and no public occupancy where our people can come in to be helped.”
‘We have a mission to do’
Hogue said he is disappointed in the reaction of some of the neighbors.
“The best words I can think of are frustrating and discouraging when a neighborhood says, ‘What we don’t want here is the poor people. We don’t trust them. We think because they’re poor, we don’t trust them,’” Hogue said.
“Soul Food Cafe is saying, ‘we own this property, this is the only property we own, and we have a mission to do,’” he said. “Soul Food Cafe is trying to compromise and be reasonable. [The neighbors are] saying, ‘No, no thank you. No, go somewhere else. We don’t want this here.’
“We’re trying to do something to help the city and the homeless, and for all the people who don’t want to see panhandlers on every street corner, we and Bethlehem House … are trying to help that.
“As long as wherever we try to set that up they say no, not in my community, we’re not going to be able to help,” Hogue said.
Not every nearby resident objects to the mission’s location.
Trina Russell, contacted at her home on Gladiola Street in the Spring Valley subdivision, said she was unaware of the controversy over the mission operating nearby, but she said it didn’t worry her.
“Whatever the Lord wants, it’ll be done,” she said. “That’s it.”
Clients of Soul Food Cafe Mission react
Harvey said he and his wife raised their seven children while operating Soul Food Cafe Mission.
“They grew up with Soul Food Cafe Mission,” he said. “It’s preposterous to think that Soul Food Cafe Mission is going to operate in our building and that we’ll ransack the community or even harm it.”
Several people participating in Soul Food Cafe Mission’s distribution Tuesday echoed
“We’re not wicked, evil people who are going to be breaking into their houses,” Virginia
Cogdell of Conway said.
Cogdell, who said she is a preacher, said she used to attend a church that held services in a barn on Soul Food Mission Cafe’s Donaghey Avenue property.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said. “[The mission’s] better than most mainline churches. They need their permanent spot.”
Evelyn Wilson was visibly upset by the idea that residents were objecting to the mission.
“What have they got against it?” she asked repeatedly. “It helps people with food and clothes.” Wilson also said the mission’s new building is “way back there” on the road on Donaghey Avenue.
“It’s God’s work, and Satan’s against it,” Cogdell said.
Dallas Barker of Conway, who was volunteering Tuesday at the mission, said she has been a client for several years and was upset by the neighbors’ reactions.
“It makes me sick to my stomach. We’re trying to help feed the needy and help them,” she said.
Brittanny Irby said she’s been coming to Soul Food Cafe Mission for three years, and it helped her when she was pregnant with her son, who is now 2 months old.
“If it wasn’t for Soul Food, I wouldn’t have clothes for my son or myself, or food,” she said. “This place is just more than a food pantry; this place is a family. You get greeted, and people remember you.”
Irby said she was homeless, but Soul Food Cafe Mission helped her get an apartment in Ola. Irby also said she got a job last week at a pizza restaurant in Morrilton.
“The neighbors would look [at it] differently … if they would get help from this place,” she said.
Irby said it’s one of the few missions in Conway where people can take a shower, too.
John Pyl walked up to join the conversation. Pyl said he is homeless and has committed felonies, including assaulting a police officer.
“I straightened out my life. I go to AA, Celebrate Recovery,” he said.
He said the mission’s clients aren’t bad people.
“We’re just under poverty,” he said.
This is not our first obstacle’
Harvey said the mission served 348 hot meals on Tuesday; distributed 308 food boxes; and gave out 2,088 articles of clothing, 1,566 health-and-beauty items and 13 Bibles; and gave 12 haircuts. Sixteen people “accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior,” and one person was baptized.
“That’s not an uncommon report,” he said, adding that clients aren’t required to attend one of the mission’s two church services to receive help. “We don’t want to cram the Bible or Jesus down anyone’s throat for them to get help.”
Harvey said he isn’t worried about the conditional-use request because he’s doing what God wants him to do.
“I’m not that stressed because I look at this as God’s ministry, and he takes care of it,” Harvey said.
Harvey, a graduate of the University of Central Arkansas and a longtime insurance salesman, said no one receives a salary from the mission, including him and his wife.
“Honestly, this whole ministry has been a God thing to begin with; this is not our first obstacle,” he said.
Fires destroyed two previous locations used by the mission, but Harvey said they persevered.
“I do have an unquenchable desire to preach God’s word,” he said.
He also said the mission had received congratulatory letters for its longtime work from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, and former Mayor Tab Townsell.
The Conway Planning Commission will meet at 7 p.m. Monday at the Russell L. “Jack” Roberts District Court Building, 810 Parkway St. downtown.
Harvey said he is asking supporters of Soul Food Cafe Mission, whose colors are red and white, to wear red to the meeting.
“We’re calling it a sea of red,” he said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.