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DOWNTOWN MISSION TO CLOSE BUT WILL REOPEN ON EAST SIDE

A downtown mission that has cared for the bodies and souls of Buffalo's down and out for nearly 60 years will close next week but eventually reopen on the city's East Side.

The facility at 218 Franklin St., operated by the America Rescue Workers, will go dark Tuesday after Thanksgiving food baskets are distributed.

The mission will be partially back in business within a few weeks at 1230 Genesee St.

The final event in the Franklin Street building will be a Bible service and Thanksgiving dinner at 4 p.m. Sunday.

The mission is moving to a two-story building that formerly housed Bison Laboratories Inc., a detergent manufacturer, said Captain Emerson Walker, who operates the mission with his wife, Captain Margaret Walker.

The Franklin Street facility, a one-time cash register sales and service shop, has served as a rescue mission since 1940 when it opened as Grace and Hope Mission. Over the years, it became a downtown landmark because of its lighted, cross-shaped sign and the words "God is Love" in white lettering on the structure's red brick facing.

The American Rescue Workers, a non-denominational ministry with roots in the Salvation Army, purchased it in 1993 and moved in the rescue ministry it had operated on Johnson Park since 1913.

The Franklin Street building, between Huron and Chippewa streets, is being sold to George and Peter Smilanich, downtown business developers, who expect to convert it to a restaurant or some other entertainment use. They also own a building next door at 228 Franklin St. that they are remodeling as a restaurant.

"That whole area is becoming an entertainment district," observed George Smilanich.

Walker said the ministry, which depends on donations from churches and individuals, has struggled financially for the last five years. It has had little success making payments on a $100,000 mortgage and a $50,000 loan from its national headquarters.

Times have been so tough the last several months, he said, that he has been working part-time as a truck driver to support himself and his wife, who is training to become a hospital chaplain, and to subsidize the mission.

The mission's only paid staff in recent weeks has been an office manager who receives "a very minimal amount," according to Walker. Other work is performed by volunteers.

For the last several years, the mission has fed a late-afternoon meal to as many as 50 people five days a week. It hands out groceries to more than 525 families a month. It also offers clothing free or for a minimal charge and provides furniture to needy families, including fire victims.

Besides the financial considerations, Walker said he wanted to relocate to an area of the city where there is a greater need for the mission's services.

"The number of people we are feeding has been going down as people move out of downtown to other parts of the city," he said.

Walker said the Genesee Street building, a few doors away from the Genesee Police Station, has twice the space of the current site.

It will provide space for a kitchen, dining room and chapel as well as a furniture and clothing store and plenty of storage.

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