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AZTEC — Members of the New Harvest Church in Aztec say they are trusting that God has a plan for everything after the Aztec City Commission denied a conditional use permit that would have allowed it to continue operating on Main Avenue.

The City Commission denied that application on Jan. 14, citing concerns that having a church in downtown could negatively impact plans for developing a tourism-based economy and revitalizing the Main Avenue corridor.

However, after the permit was denied on a 3-2 vote, Commissioner Sherri Sipe made a motion to table the permit until the Economic Development Advisory Board could hear the application and make a recommendation. This motion passed on a 3-2 vote.

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The board met on Jan. 16 and recommends that the City Commission approve a conditional use permit that will expire in August. If the Commission approves the permit, Bost will have until August to find a new place for the church to meet.

A small group gathered on Jan. 15 in the church for a service. They opened their Bibles to Proverbs chapter 14 and went through it verse by verse. Often the conversation returned to the previous night’s City Commission decision.

At one point during the service, Pastor Danny Bost said he felt discouraged, but he was trusting that God has a plan.

“If we haven’t experienced deep discouragement and deep grief, then we can’t experience deep joy,” he said.

Prior to the start of the service, church member Mary McDonald said the church is an important part of the community. It’s a small congregation and she has brought children with hard family lives to the church because of its welcoming environment. The small size allows the children to relate to the other members better, she said.

The church has been located on Main Avenue for years, however its location changed in September following a gas explosion at an apartment adjacent to the church. The pastor found a small storefront in a plaza across from Safeway to rent.

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"If there isn't a church there, you might have a vacant storefront," Community Development Director Steven Saavedra said during the City Commission meeting.

But the church's operational hours are limited and, for the majority of the time, the church sits unoccupied. Saavedra said this can make the building look vacant. He said having a church in a storefront reduces the number of commercial properties available for new businesses.

Businesses must get a waiver to serve or sell alcohol if they are located within 300 feet of a church. Saavedra said the only other type of business that could be impacted would be a marijuana dispensary — either medical or recreational, if New Mexico legalizes recreational cannabis. He said the state does not offer waivers for medical marijuana dispensaries.

This impact may be minimal because the church is located adjacent to another church and near a preschool. However, those impacts were at the center of the Jan. 14 debate.

"We absolutely need to think about those eventualities and if we're not, I think we're not doing our jobs," said Mayor Victor Snover. "We have to consider what is the long-term benefit potential for the city and does this fit into the long-term benefit with the types of businesses that are traditionally on a Main Avenue in a downtown. And I think that this does add another hurdle unnecessarily to a potential business owner or entrepreneur that wants to open a business."

He described the church as a hub on a wheel with its impacts radiating out 300 feet.

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"I think it's our responsibility to transcend our own personal opinions and to look at the health and future welfare of this as a vibrant, thriving downtown area," he said.

Snover said a lot of thriving downtowns have alcohol establishments.

"I think that to add an unnecessary hurdle is short-sighted of us," he said.

Sipe disagreed with Snover and said a lot of the storefronts in that shopping center are empty, and have been empty for years.

"I think that it's great to have the building filled and they have it looking like something's there...Who knows how long it would stay vacant if they're not in there," she said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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