Chippewa Falls, Wis. – A closed tavern in Chippewa Falls that appeared slated for demolition has been given new life — as a church.
River City Community Church has leased the building at 1200 W. River St., moving into the site known as the Lodge for the past decade.
Chris and Jaci Uttecht, co-leaders of the church, said their congregation was founded earlier this year with a group of about 20 meeting in their home. It quickly grew, and they began looking for space.
They saw a sign on the former tavern saying it was available.
"It had been vacant for 18 months," Jaci Uttecht said. "It's not for sale. We … hope it is a beacon of hope for Chippewa Falls. This space has been a real blessing to us."
When the Uttechts first walked into the building, they had a vision of how it could be transformed into a house of worship. The front bar area was still there, but all the bar signs and beer taps were gone. They thought about adding a few tables to the area for socializing.
They then walked through a narrow hallway opening up into a banquet hall. The hall, they thought, was perfect for creating a church setting.
"We knew this is what we needed," Jaci Uttecht said. "But we knew it needed work."
First, they needed to clean up debris that had sat in the building for a year. Even though it is a relatively new building, it was showing signs of neglect.
"We filled a 30-yard dumpster," Jaci Uttecht said. "We did a lot of work to get it to this point. Over 50 people were involved in the renovations."
A meat locker/cooler area has been transformed into a children's playroom. A main office became a nursery. An outdoor smoking area is now a play space.
Shelves were removed, walls were painted and tables and chairs were added.
"It was a lot of cleaning up, hiding wires, moving cabinets," Chris Uttecht said.
The church members purchased the furnishings through various websites or used donations.
Last year, Lodge owner Tim Swoboda announced he had sold the building to Menards, which had planned to demolish it.
"It's bittersweet," Swoboda said at the time. "We put a lot of work into it, so it's hard to see it demolished."
Swoboda had purchased the building and opened the Lodge in 2009. Three years later, he put a 4,000-square-foot addition on the building at a cost of $1 million, city records show.
Swoboda estimates the total building is 9,000 square feet, on a lot of about 1.25 acres.
It is unclear why Menards opted to make the building available for lease. Menards officials couldn't be reached for comment.
The Uttechts are just happy the building was available and signed a long-term lease so their church — for now — has a stable home.
"Menards was great to work with on this," Jaci Uttecht said. "For us, the church isn't about the building. We'll probably be in a different space down the road."
The Uttechts said they already are averaging 80 people on Sundays, as congregation members are inviting family, friends and neighbors to visit.
"It's a lot of word-of-mouth," Jaci Uttecht said. "They are finding community here."