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FOR SALE: 116-year-old local landmark, excellent in-city, accessible location, 25,000 square feet of space, stone exterior, interior featuring lush cherry and black walnut woodwork, belfry complete with bell, pews negotiable, $400,000. Call Hunt Real Estate.

Sound intriguing? Perhaps it could be just the place for a corporate headquarters or residential condominiums.

But wait a minute. What kind of office building has a belfry with bells? And pews? What landmark are we talking about?

We're talking church, as in the Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church, at the corner of Delaware and Tupper. An example of a problem many in-city houses of worship face, the grand facility must be sold because a dwindling congregation no longer can support its financial obligations.

However, selling a church takes a bit more tact and a little more ingenuity than selling 25,000 square feet of block and mortar in Black Rock. Tim Lyons, the Hunt agent handling the sale, has come up with a novel way to attract attention to his listing and help needy children at the same time.

He's holding an "open church" from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday for invited guests and any other interested parties to show off the space. And instead of the usual open house routine of hors d'oeuvres and a raffle, he's throwing a real family-type reception.

When was the last time you went to an open house and heard an organ recital on a 114-year-old pipe organ, or listened to songs of the holiday season performed by an ensemble from the Central City Choir?

"I'm asking people to bring their spouse, children, grandchildren, friends or customers," Lyons said. "We're also asking people to bring useable children's clothing for collection and distribution to the needy."

Hunt has had the church listing for about six weeks and Lyons said he's had no shortage of people interested in a look-see. Through his contacts with developers, church neighbors and people who previously have retrofitted churches, he's been showing the property about four times per week.

And why not take a look? For $400,000, you get about 25,000 square feet of space, an excellent example of Italian Gothic architecture, including an 8,000-square-foot sanctuary, superbly maintained exterior stone and interior cherry and black walnut woodwork, a 42-car adjacent parking lot on Delaware and the uniqueness that only an old church offers.

"At $400,000, the space is being offered for about $16 per square foot,"
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Lyons said. "You could buy a nondescript industrial building in North Buffalo for more dollars. People are buying homes in Amherst that cost more than $400,000."

And how many homes come complete with their own bell?

Lyons said thus far he's toured the church with potential customers having visions of renovating it into everything from maintaining its present calling, to converting it into a restaurant-banquet facility, a corporate headquarters, a cultural arts performing center and, for the most adventuresome, an office complex or residential condominiums -- including making the single-floor sanctuary into two floors.

"Restaurateurs love it, using the sanctuary for the restaurant and large second-floor rooms adjacent to the sanctuary for banquet rooms," Lyons said. "The customer who looked at it as residential condominiums figured, even with adding profit on to total costs, the price per square foot still would be about $20 less that a number of Delaware condos."

The office space conversion is a bit more tricky. Lyons calculates that doing the work while hoping to find a tenant is too iffy a proposition. It could work, however, if the owner also were a tenant.

The fact that the church is up for sale speaks to a problem many inner-city churches are experiencing today: dwindling congregations.

For whatever reason, the death of long-time parishioners, younger people perhaps foregoing organized worship and the general migration of people to the suburbs, huge inner-city facilities are facing serious financial problems. Lyons said the Asbury Delaware congregation had shrunk to 18 families.

"After years of struggling, the congregation could no longer support the church, and in June ceased operations," said William Wells Jr., treasurer of the Buffalo District Church Extension Society of the United Methodist Church. The society originally was formed by the Methodist Church to purchase land for churches. Today, it also is charged with overseeing church sales, including a facility in Lockport and the White Memorial United Methodist Church at Main and Northrup Place.

Wells said the trustees' wishes for Asbury Delaware are to give most of the sale proceeds to United Methodist Metro, the community outreach arm of the United Methodist Church on the Niagara Frontier.

"Once there is a sale, the money will be invested and the interest used to benefit the poor and hungry," said Craig French, community minister for the Buffalo District United Methodist Church. "If we lose the building, at least we can continue to work in the community."

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