KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Road widening projects are often considered a sign of progress, with the flow of traffic often improved when finished.
But at a church in North Knoxville, a road project in its front yard has disrupted the life of the congregation – the Western Avenue expansion.
The congregation at Keith Avenue Baptist Church, located off of Western Avenue, has experienced several spurts of growth over the last century.
As a result, parking was expanded to accommodate the growing number of parishioners attending Sunday services. But when the widening project off Western Avenue got underway, things changed.
Now in its 50th year, the congregation serves the North Knoxville community.
Church leaders say four years ago, the number of people in the pews on a typical Sunday was nearly double what it is today.
Work crews have been busy on Sterchi Street and Keith Avenue in front of the church for nearly three years.
Church members say the widening of Western Avenue with the addition of new flyovers and ramps has isolated the church on an island.
“The concern that I have here at this community church is that we’re not able to reach people in the community because nobody knows how to get into the church,” says church member Barbara Chapman. “One week, you might be able to come in one way, the next week you might not. We’re not getting the people because nobody knows how to get in.”
The Church once sat a top a gently sloping hill on nearly two acres of property with parking lots on each side and a horseshoe connector in front of the church. New visitors now find the church’s entrance off Sterchi Street and Keith Avenue difficult to find.
“They don’t know how to get in here. There are no signs that tell you how to get into Keith Avenue Baptist Church,” says church minister Jack Chapman.
Preacher Chapman says he’d like like to meet more new people every Sunday — but that hasn’t been happening for quite a while.
“People cannot get in here. We don’t have visitors like we used to. We’re not growing like we normally would,” Chapman said.
The only sign in front of the church is not very inviting. Even with GPS, you would be challenged to locate the entrance to the church.
“Use to be you’d come straight up the street on Sterchi and right into the church. You can’t use the alley over here, you can’t use the front street, the only way to get in is a back way over here,” says church member William Mays.
Another concern is the steep grade that begins in front of their property plunging to the road below — they didn’t expect it to be like this.
“As you look out, all this, this used to be the church property along through here,” Mays says. “This was, where you see this construction fence. We were supposed to have another 18 feet out from the edge of our access road here. So not only do we not have that easement area it’s gone. Then they have proposed to put up a high style guardrail, right at the edge of this.”
Members say they would prefer a barrier like the one contractors installed just above Sterchi Street.
“I’d like to see a much safer barrier similar to what they have down here on this retaining wall, instead of a highway style guard rail. I would like something that a child can’t go over, under, or through,” Mays said.
WATE 6 On Your Side contacted the Tennessee Department of Transportation about some of the issues.
TDOT tells us that it, too, was concerned about the safety around the horseshoe driveway — so, its designers were asked to look at adding a guardrail.
TDOT says the retaining wall was revised and added to fit inside the slope easement. There was a meeting a few days ago, but no promises were made.
Church leaders were reminded when the contract was signed with TDOT, Keith Baptist received $42,000 for the property it lost.
Still – leaders are worried about long-term safety issues.
“So we have to watch our children because on this side of the hill this is like a mountain. If a child was to fall off, God forbid what would happen to him. Then on this frontage,” Chapman said. “Our children would fall down this embankment. We have no safety barrier walls. We can’t let our kids leave our sight.”
Leaders are trusting that when the road is finished, their church will be put on solid ground.