Property tax bill for church may have silver lining

Southside congregation eligible for funds to fix up Maple Grove Elementary


When the phone rang over a decade ago, the furthest thing from the mind of Pastor Coye Bouyer of the Kingdom Life Church was encumbering his small congregation with a mortgage and a decaying piece of property on Lansing’s south side. 

But that’s exactly what his mentor from Jackson was proposing.

“One day he sees this piece of property, he calls me up, he says, “Son, God wants you to have this property,’” Bouyer recounted over coffee.

“And I said, ‘You what?’” He chuckled. But he also didn’t ignore the message. He called the real estate agent representing the owners of the old Maple Grove Elementary School, 6031 S. Martin Luther King Blvd. in Lansing. It has been sitting vacant since 2006, when the school district closed it. Vandals spray-painted profanity on the walls and smashed windows.

The asking price for the property was $300,000.

“God’s not talking to me,” Bouyer said of the cost.

Forward to 2012. The same real estate agent called Bouyer about the availability of a former church. The asking price was $1 million — again, too much.

But he inquired about Maple Grove Elementary. The agent said it was going up to auction soon, and would likely go for $100,000 maybe even $75,000.

“Now God’s talking to me,” he said. 

He and his wife drove to Grand Rapids to attend the auction. They were the only buyers in the room. The auctioneer held the auction hoping another bidder would show up. That second bidder didn’t, and Bouyer got it for $75,000. 

Now, though, in 2023, the old school has been put back on the tax rolls. Bouyer and his church are facing a $40,000-a-year tax bill, thanks to a crackdown in the City Assessor’s Office.

Scott Bean, a spokesperson for the city, said the shift of the property was not a surprise for the church.

“The 2023 Assessment of that property is $521,000,” Bean said by email. “Most of that value is the land. The taxes to the Church will be approx. $40,000 for the year (of which about $10,000 goes to the City). They have been aware of the anticipated tax bill for 2023 since last winter. It was not unexpected, and all property owners in the city are expected to pay their assessment.”

The city assessor and the assessment review process determined that the property was not being used for religious purposes, despite being owned by a church.

Bouyer said he agrees it had not been used for religious purposes.

“We hadn’t been utilizing it at all. But part of that is COVID,” he said. “Nobody’s been gathering since 2020. So in some sense, there was nothing for us to do. Or if there was it, it was challenging.”

He said the church had been exploring how to revitalize the property and remove the blighted building. But as a small church — the congregation is about 140 members and located at 4303 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. —remediating asbestos in the building was cost prohibitive, he said. The cost to tear the building down was “easily $360,000” or more, he said.

He also noted that the church was notified of the revocation of its tax-exempt status on the property in winter 2022. The congregation couldn’t meet in the unsafe building, nor could it meet in the frigid cold and snow outdoors. He said he is planning religious services and activities on the large green space where the building sits this summer.

City officials said the revocation of the tax-exempt status has an ironic upside. The church now qualifies for a host of development incentives that were previously off-limits. Those incentives can help them tear down the asbestos-riddled building and create something new on the plot.

“The Maple Grove Elementary School is a key site for the overall revitalization of the S. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Corridor,” wrote Aurelius Christian, a commercial development specialist at the Lansing Economic Development Corp. who is overseeing the MLK Corridor Improvement Authority.

“With efforts underway to identify a redevelopment strategy for Logan Square, redevelopment of vacant buildings further south along the corridor can bring a greater impact,” Christian said. “The change in the property’s taxable status will make it more possible for redevelopment to take place.”

Bouyer is not averse to developing the land and partnering with the city or independent developers. He said he would be “excited about resources to help assist at this point.” His concern, however, lies in his Christian faith.

“The minute I show up in certain places and say I’m a pastor or I’m a church, there are certain connotations that get attached to that where people don’t necessarily see me, they don’t see Coye,” he said. “I don’t really know what the city’s motives are. I don’t know what the developer’s motives are. I do know this: Usually, people do something to make money.”

In January, Bouyer said he wanted to turn the property into a park and green space. He is now entertaining the idea of developing housing on the site along with retail. But any development has to fit into not only his biblical perspective but his ethics. He also said the development ultimately has to benefit the community.

Bouyer said returned from Dallas after training for the ministry because he wanted to give back to the community that had given him so much.

He said the ultimate fate of it is in God’s hands, and that makes him secure.

“I don’t have to figure stuff out,” he said. “I gotta just say, ‘All right, God, either you want us to hold onto it for a season, and now that season is up because you didn’t want someone else to have it, but now it’s time for this to have the property. Or, God is like, ‘It’s just not time yet. Just trust me. Keep walking faithfully.’”


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