The Loudoun Freedom Center and Loudoun Construction have made clear their interest in purchasing and restoring Middleburg’s historic Asbury Church, but now they’ll have to formally add their names to a larger pool of interested groups if they still want to be considered.
The town on July 19 advertised a request for proposals to solicit interest from entities interested in purchasing and restoring the 190-year-old church building, which sits on 0.23 acres off North Jay Street and has been owned by the town since 2014. According to a statement from the town, the goal is to find an “experienced and qualified” purchaser who “demonstrates the interest and capability in fully restoring, preserving, and maintaining” the 2,660-square-foot building while celebrating its history. Town Administrator Danny Davis said the town expects to receive up to a half dozen proposals by the Oct. 11 deadline. But two groups have already expressed an interest.
On April 11, the Loudoun Freedom Center proposed to the Town Council that the town could transfer ownership of the property to it as a deed of gift to set up an African American museum there—a use that would celebrate the history of the building, which became the first black church in Middleburg when the white Methodist Episcopal community donated it to the black Methodist Episcopal congregation in 1864. Pastor Michelle Thomas, the center’s founder and CEO, said restoration might cost up to $700,000 and take 18-24 months to complete.
Two weeks later, Loudoun Construction owner Ryan Michels proposed that his company could purchase the property for $50,000 and restore the building to be used as an office. Michels said restoration might cost $300,000 and include the removal of the altar and the preservation of the façade and exposed wooden beams and flooring.
Those informal proposals came a few months after the town had opened and closed a request for information process in which it received no responses.
Davis said the town advertised the request for proposals in an effort to ensure that the future purchaser restores the property in a way that reflects the Town Council’s goals and objectives. He said the town is putting an emphasis on preservation of the building’s structure and history and that a key element would be whether or not a proposer has the ability to finance the renovation.
“The goal really is, let’s protect the structure, keep it sustainable, keep it honoring the history,” he said.
According to the advertisement, proposals will be evaluated on a 100-point system based on their ability to address seven criteria—25 points toward their plans to complete restoration work in a timely manner; 20 points toward their long-range financial plan; 15 points toward their plans to preserve as much of the building as possible; 15 points toward their plans to honor and celebrate the property’s history; 10 points toward their plans to restore the interior as close to its traditional layout as possible; 10 points toward their outlook on potential communitywide impact; and a mere five points toward their proposed purchase price.
Thomas said that while she was not surprised that the town advertised a formal request for proposals even after she and Michels had presented to the council, she was “taken aback” by the advertisement’s failure to emphasize the African American history of the Asbury Church.
“It’s not just a church … it is the bedrock of the African American community in Middleburg,” she said. “To not place emphasis on that, that was disappointing—I have no clue why they wouldn’t include that.”
Thomas said she feels the town should give special consideration to groups that want to use the property to preserve the African American community’s history there and that when there’s no emphasis on that, the building “loses its value to the community” and becomes a “benign building.”
She said that, nevertheless, the Freedom Center would “absolutely” respond to the advertisement. She said the center’s response would be largely the same as what she proposed in April, but that it would better detail plans for strategic partnerships within the community.
“We have to submit a response,” she said. “It is the Loudoun Freedom Center’s intent to bring life and history back to Middleburg and in the way that we tell the African American story.”
Michels has not said whether Loudoun Construction would respond to the advertisement.
Although the advertisement doesn’t expressly mention the “African American” or “black” community, Davis said the town realizes that aspect of the property’s history is important. “It does come out that we’re recognizing and celebrating the African American community there and wanting to make sure that is represented,” he said.
Davis said that 4-6 responses would be “fantastic” and that the town has already heard interest from local entities with “creative ideas and creative interest in adaptive reuse,” one of which was a small church.
Davis said that once the Oct. 11 deadline comes around, the town would assemble a review team made up of a Town Council member and other community members, including former Asbury Church congregants, historic preservationists or members of the local African American community.
He said that the sale could go through by the end of the year, but that the town won’t push the issue. He said that a selection during the first few months in 2020 would be more likely.
Groups with questions about the advertisement will have until Sept. 13 to ask the town. All questions and town responses will be posted to the town’s website by Sept. 20. Groups are encouraged to visit the property and should request to do so before Aug. 23.
The Asbury Church was established in 1829 and has been used as a white Methodist Episcopal church, as a storehouse, government depot and hospital during the Civil War and as a black Methodist Episcopal church, which it remained until 1994.
After purchasing the property in December 2014, the town in August 2017 paid Cochran’s Stone Masonry $174,000 to install a new roof on the building and perform interior renovations.
Today, it’s known as the town’s oldest surviving church building and is eligible for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.