Stone's Throw Church of Middletown hopes to break ground on a 26,340-square-foot church building at Westown Town Center sometime next year.
Town officials and developers are hoping restaurants and retail stores will soon follow Westown Movies to the Westown Town Center off of Merrimac Avenue.
But the first project to sign on as a future neighbor of Middletown's new 12-screen multiplex theater isn't a commercial enterprise.
Stone's Throw Church of Middletown purchased the 6-acre plot next to the site of the movie theater last year and now hopes to break ground on a 26,340-square-foot church building sometime in 2015.
"We probably could have purchased 20 acres for half the price out in the country, but the concept has always been for Stone's Throw to be a town church," said Dan Betters, the head pastor of the nearly 4-year-old church, which currently meets at Appoquinimink High School. "As people go to the movies, grocery shopping or out to dinner, we want the church to be right there – just a stone's throw from where the community lives."
Last month, nearly 130 members of the congregation voted overwhelmingly in favor of a concept plan for the construction project.
As currently designed, the $3.6 million church would include a sanctuary with seating for nearly 775, a separate youth sanctuary and nursery, six preschool rooms, a fellowship hall, a conference room, five offices, a kitchen, a coffee bar, an audio/video production studio and an outdoor pavilion.
"The idea is to build as big as we can build now, rather than figure out what's the smallest church to fit our needs and then build additions later," Betters said. "This way, once we're done, we're done. And hopefully we won't have to worry about growing out of our building anytime in the next 50 years."
The church's 300 members have pledged to donate $1.2 million towards the project over the next three years.
To date, the church has received about $500,000, which was used last spring to make a down payment on the $1 million cost of the land, which Betters said would be used as collateral to fund the mortgage on the new church.
Church leaders believe they will be able to pay that mortgage if they can bring in 30 new members a year, with roughly half of the congregation donating less than $2,500.
"We've doubled the size of our congregation from 150 to about 300 since we first planted the church in Middletown in 2010, so we feel like that kind of growth will be relatively easy for us," he said. "Middletown is one of the fastest growing areas in the state and we feel like with this new building, we'll be one of the first churches that anyone who is new to town will see."
Building churches in southern New Castle County is something of a family tradition for Betters.
His father, Chuck Betters, founded the Glasgow Church at 2880 Summit Bridge Road, as well as Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, where his brother currently serves as headmaster.
Meanwhile, Betters' late grandfather Ralph Watts helped put in the foundation at Middletown's Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church on Pennington Street. Watts, who passed away last month, also was the developer behind Sharondale Estates, which Betters said is named for his mother.
"My family and I moved to Middletown in 2002, but our family has a history here," the 38-year-old University of Delaware graduate said. "I've completely fallen in love with this town and it's my mission, and the mission of Stone's Throw Church, to bring something here that really has meaning and can help bring the word of Jesus Christ to those who might not otherwise seek it out."