ATLANTIC CITY — City officials have deemed the 163-year-old church that houses Sister Jean’s Kitchen unsafe, forcing the decades-old charity to vacate the premises by Thursday.
Further complicating matters for the nonprofit organization is that plans to relocate its services out of the Tourism District have fallen apart and left officials without a viable alternative to continue providing for those in need.
Dale Finch, director of the city’s licensing and inspection department, said the Victory First Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Pennsylvania and Pacific avenues, was inspected Jan. 17. Finch said the building was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and its condition has continued to deteriorate.
Anthony Cox, a city construction department official, said the inspection revealed both exterior and interior deficiencies, including rot and deterioration that made the structure unsafe.
“The sanctuary area is really in bad shape,” said Cox. “So much so that you can look up into the ceiling and see through to the sky.”
Cox said before the city can allow the church facilities to be used again, a detailed engineering report on repairs and remediation is required. A notice to vacate was posted Monday and the premises must be clear by Thursday, he said.
“Absent (a report addressing the structural issues), the entire area is considered unsafe,” Cox said.
Sister Jean’s, which serves about 300 meals a day, was slated to relocate to the closed St. Monica’s Catholic Church, on North Pennsylvania Avenue, more than a year ago.
In June 2017, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved up to $1 million for Sister Jean’s as part of its Pacific Avenue Midtown Redevelopment Project, which aimed to move the kitchen — along with the John Brooks Recovery Center now in Pleasantville — outside the authority’s Tourism District. The CRDA-approved resolution outlined the scope of project — estimated at $936,121 — and required all plans comply with all city codes and ordinances.
Sister Jean’s Kitchen purchased three buildings from St. Monica’s church in August 2017, according to the nonprofit’s executive director, the Rev. John Scotland, spending reserve funds to buy the properties.
The nonprofit had intended to use the CRDA funding to improve the St. Monica’s buildings and relocate, but the authority found flaws with the plan.
According to Scotland, CRDA directed the nonprofit to Joseph Jingoli, a local developer and co-owner of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, who has assisted other charities, including Turning Point Day Center for the Homeless.
“We offered to construction manage it, for free, for (Scotland) and help him through it,” Jingoli said.
After reviewing the plans that Sister Jean’s own developer had come up with, Jingoli said the relocation proposal did not account for building code requirements, such as those required after Hurricane Sandy or the Americans with Disabilities Act, which increased cost estimates for the project.
The $1 million from CRDA was not going to be enough to cover the project’s cost and, absent a definitive plan, the allocated funding expired.
Scotland said the nonprofit currently does not have a certificate of occupancy from the city to operate out of the new property and, even if it did, the location is not outfitted to serve the homeless.
The nonprofit was not opposed to moving out of the Tourism District, Scotland said, as long as it could continue operation somewhere else.
He said the move became less certain after former Mayor Don Guardian left office. According to Scotland, Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. has not answered the group’s letters and remains unresponsive to the organization’s questions about where to go.
“He has effectively blocked us from going to Saint Monica’s, and he has not given us any alternative of another place to move,” Scotland said.
Gilliam did not respond to requests for comment left with his office.
Scotland said he is still open to talking with the mayor for a plan to relocate.
In the meantime, the kitchen’s food pantries and freezers are full, and four full-time employees who live in the city currently work there.
“We’ll stay open as long as we possibly can,” he said.
Chris Grove, 45, has been going to Sister Jean’s several days a week for the past two months since coming to Atlantic City from Kentucky. Grove was among the dozens of Jean’s regulars who were saddened by the news Monday.
“I guess I’ll go to the Salvation Army,” he answered when asked where he would find a meal after Thursday. “They serve lunch, too.”
But several people leaving Jean’s lunch service Monday said other places in the city routinely run out of food. One man, who would only provide a first name of Henry, said city officials were asking for trouble by forcing people with nothing to lose to find other ways to survive.
“You want to shut down the only place in Atlantic City that can feed 300-plus a day? I hope the city is not about to start a war they don’t want to finish,” he said. “Some of these people, if they don’t have anywhere to eat, they’re going to take what they want.”