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A Gift to the Region

Donation of a defunct department store allows Southern California church to provide training and resources.

The crowds flocking to Sunday evening’s young adult services are already jamming the parking lot at Bakersfield City Center. But the vision Canyon Hills Assembly of God has for this Southern California development go far beyond revitalizing a defunct Montgomery Ward department store.

The megachurch’s plans include remodeling the 165,000-square-foot facility so it can serve as a regional training and resource center for church-based compassion ministries. It also will serve as an epicenter for SoCal Network congregations in the Central Valley to collaborate on church planting and revitalization as well as world missions with a state-of-the-art conference center and support hub.

In addition, City Center will one day be home to separate English and Spanish-speaking worship services, with unified children and youth ministries for Anglo and Hispanic children. It also will be the site of a regional Convoy of Hope  operation, with the compassion ministry able to deploy fleets of trucks from the bays once used to load and unload merchandise.

Senior Pastor Wendell Vinson — a Bakersfield native — says this is one of the most exhilarating developments in his 33 years as pastor of the church, which started with a handful of people in 1983.

“It gives us the opportunity to go back to the heart of the city,” Vinson says. “When we built northeast of Bakersfield. We had to go outside the city to get enough property.”

Ironically, since Canyon Hills constructed its first building in 1989, annexation placed the property inside the city, even though it is nearly seven miles from downtown.

Thanks to City Center, the multisite congregation now will have a presence in the heart of downtown, about one mile north of city hall.

The story of the ambitious development started last year, when a generous donor (who wants to remain anonymous) approached the SoCal Network, and then offered to help the church acquire the onetime Montgomery Ward store, a multimillion-dollar gift.

After the chain closed its doors in 2001, a developer had tried to make a go of it with an eclectic mix of shops and medical offices. The effort ended amid the onset of the recession in 2008; since then, the property had fallen into disrepair.

While pleased to see such a vital part of the downtown area coming back to life, Executive Pastor Steve Vinson is more excited about City Center’s ministry potential.

“I believe it will allow for a real quantum leap in terms of outreach,” says Steve, Wendell’s brother and a staff member for 25 years. “We very much want it to be a resource center for all the churches in the region. No other place has the space, the parking area, the staging area, and so much need.”

The project already has sparked considerable interest, with numerous people donating funds and in-kind gifts to help the development move beyond the blight that once plagued the property.

Canyon Hills is about halfway into its $5 million redevelopment, which has included repairing the heating and air conditioning system, plus considerable demolition and rebuilding. Wendell is reluctant to set a specific date for the complete project opening and dedication service, but he anticipates it being fully operational next year.

City Center is hosting a number of regional conferences and other events. A SoCal Network leadership training event for pastors is meeting there this month, and next February there will be a Rural Compassion seminar designed to help pastors from agrarian areas better minister in their context.

Canyon Hills likewise is coordinating a major regional outreach next April. Thousands are expected to come to a Convoy of Hope food and clothing distribution, along with a medical clinic and job fair, where residents can meet prospective employers. More than 100 churches are co-sponsoring the event.

For Wendell, such bustling activity brings back treasured memories. As the son of an oil-drilling superintendent, he regularly moved all over the world. Still, because the family owned a house in the area, Bakersfield always felt like home.

Wendell remembers his mother shopping while he lounged in an upholstered recliner and watched the department store’s color television TVs (his family didn’t own one). 

“That’s where we went to buy clothes and shoes and tires for the car,” the senior pastor recalls. “It was the center of our city for retail.”

However, the neighborhood suffered because multiple retailers moved to malls. Too late, municipal leaders understood the importance of a strong downtown.

Providentially, the day after Canyon Hills closed the deal came the announcement that the Bakersfield depot for the state’s high-speed rail line to run from San Diego to San Francisco will be located next to City Center.

“It’s becoming an epicenter,” Wendell says. “City Center is more than a building. It’s a chance for God’s people to work together and finish the assignment we’ve been given.”

Kenneth C. Walker

Kenneth C. Walker is a freelance writer, co-author, and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia. He has more than 4,500 article bylines and has written, edited, or contributed to more than 90 books.