CINCINNATI - When the housing market surged in 2018, houses of worship got a sales lift too.
Church sales hit a four-year high in the Tri-State, with 13 properties changing hands this year for a combined price of $3.4 million. And those numbers could climb higher if three deals under contract close by the year’s end.
“The pace is definitely picking up,” said Nat Comisar, executive vice president for Sibcy Cline Realtors. “I have right now eight groups looking for a church. When I first listed a church property, say 6 or 7 years ago, I couldn’t find anyone to come see them.”
It’s a sign of strength in the region’s commercial real estate industry and a positive indicator for neighborhood stability. Churches are often iconic structures that contribute to blight when they’re dormant but can also generate traffic and improve perceptions of safety and vibrancy when they’re active.
“Churches have some of the most special architecture that you’re going to find in any community," said Matt Bourgeois, executive director of the Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. "That’s where a lot of the investment, a lot of the talent went. You showed off your community through your church.”
Bourgeois worked 15 years to save old St. George Church at 42 Calhoun Street before Crossroads Church invested $13 million in its 2015 renovation. Now, the 1873 structure designed by legendary Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford draws 1,200 a week for Sunday services and hosts dozens of events each year for student groups and entrepreneurs.
“This building has so much history tied to it,” said Joshua Wade, Crossroads Uptown community pastor. “A couple times a week we’ll have somebody walk in our building who says, ‘My mom grew up here. She was baptized here. My parents were married here.’ To see this building restored, open and being used as a place of worship has been amazing for people in the surrounding area.”
Comisar dove into real estate after his family's famous Maisonette restaurant closed in 2005. He's a generalist who lists commercial and residential properties. But after selling five churches in five years, he said his colleagues started calling him "The Church Whisperer." Comisar said churches are an “emotional gathering point” for communities. That means they can energize commercial development projects like the Taft Ale House in Over-the-Rhine, the Bell Event Center in Pendleton or The Monastery office complex in Mt Adams.
“When you were a kid growing up, you went to the church not necessarily to worship, but you went to the rec center to play basketball or you went for some event, a dance or something," he said. "We always gather around churches. Now, you transition to an adult life and you’re in a business mode and you see an opportunity to do something with one of those symbols of community from your past. It’s kind of a natural fit.”
So, when Comisar listed the Word of Truth Church in Norwood this summer, he wasn’t surprised to see potential buyers who wanted to convert the space to a banquet hall, office space, a personal residence or a performance venue for vocal and dance recitals.
Built by the First Church of Christian Science in 1923, the building at 2039 Weyer Ave. was purchased in 1995 by Word of Truth Ministries, which put it up for sale in June. It isn’t the grandest of structures, but Comisar found plenty of selling points in the 12,000-square-foot church.
“I love this giant vaulted ceiling,” he said. “The panels up there, if you see them, they’re not painted. Those are cloth panels … Look at this grand edifice in the back, the stage, the acoustics. You can probably hear the sound bouncing around in here right now. I mean, this is a pretty place. It’s a very pretty place.”
Comisar had 36 showings before John Neville put it under contract for a sale that’s scheduled to close this month.
Neville owns a used-car dealership in Milford and serves as the administrative pastor of Grace Fellowship. It’s a small non-denominational Church that now meets at Neville’s home in New Richmond. Neville said the Norwood site can draw new members from around the region and provide “a safe haven” for quiet reflection on Sundays.
“This building just lends itself to worship,” Neville said. “This is a place where I can meet God.”