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Land swap prevents ministry from serving needy

SNELLVILLE - There won't be turkey for many needy southern Gwinnett families this Thanksgiving, after the controversial Snellville land swap caused a misstep for a local cooperative ministry.

Beth Moffat said she thought she would be packing up the Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry's office over the holidays, but instead the move will happen in January. The ministry didn't learn soon enough to plan for the annual Thanksgiving dinner adoption, where volunteers hand out turkeys to needy families.

In the coming months, the Snellville government will take over the building where the ministry is now located. The land is now owned by the Snellville United Methodist Church, which has had a deal with the city for three years to swap the building for the city's current senior center, located adjacent to the church.

The church already owns the Snellville City Hall, which it swapped for land across the street where the city is building a new government hall and senior center.

The shopping center where the ministry is now located, according to City Manager Jeff Timler, will be torn down and a city plaza will be built.

Timler said that won't happen until next summer because other businesses have leases in the building that run out in April.

But the city attorney has declared that state law forbids the city to offer the ministry a reduced or free rent. The ministry paid the church $10 for the year.

Timler said he offered to delay the closing of the deal for a few months, but the church didn't agree.

"It has to do with the city and the church fussing and fighting," Moffat said. "Everyone wants to make it sound like it's someone else's fight. It is what it is. We have to relocate."

The land swap has taken so long that the city is now paying rent to the church to use its own City Hall.

After months of delay, workers are expected to move into the new edifice and senior center in January, and then the final exchange will take place.

"It's happened faster than we expected," Rebecca Beaty said.

She said she was aware that the current location would be temporary. The ministry moved there in April after Snellville First Baptist Church asked it to move from its free accommodations on the church campus so a baseball field could be built.

"We thought we would probably be here a year before we would have to move," she said. "We were caught between Snellville United Methodist Church and the city."

Beaty said the last move cost about $4,000 and she expects the same this time around.

So instead of handing out money for winter heating bills or other housing assistance, the ministry is saving money for the movers.

Another church, Community of Grace Lutheran Church outside Loganville, has given the ministry permission to use its land, so Beaty said she is hoping for a donation of double-wide trailers to house the food pantry, clothing closet and offices.

"We really don't have the funds to buy or pay rent," she said.

Moffat, the ministry's executive director said she really appreciated the support from the Lutheran church's pastor, Matt Henning.

"He has been so supportive. Not everybody wants us," she said.

Moffat said she still doesn't know when the ministry will have to move out - she's been told anywhere from November to July. But she said she did not want to wait until she was given 30 days notice.

Even though the ministry has been based in Snellville for nearly 20 years, she said she's glad to leave the city after the recent struggles.

The new location is "in unincorporated Gwinnett County, and that's a good thing," she said.

Since April, because of the prime location on U.S. Highway 78, Beaty said the ministry is gaining more and more clients. In July alone, she said, the ministry helped more people than in the first three months of the year.

The ministry is currently taking applications for families needing help for the holidays and is also looking for sponsors to provide meals and toys for the children.

Sponsors that have already been matched with families have the option of providing a Thanksgiving meal, too, but for the first time the ministry hasn't been able to set up a program for that holiday.

"We have a lot more people in need than people realize," Beaty said.

To make donations to the Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry, call 770-985-5229.