How Mount Wellington Community Church got their long-awaited community hub project off the ground

In 1996, Pastor Russell Grainger moved to Mount Wellington to reinvigorate the local congregation and start a new community church.

From a declining chapel to a thriving community hub

Russell remembers what happened next. “Before Mount Wellington Community Church began, this was the Sylvia Park Chapel. But by the mid-nineties it had become a very small assembly of 11 people. My wife and I, with two other couples, were commissioned to replant the church.

“We spent time talking with people here, had a celebration service for all that had been, and the very next Sunday we started Mount Wellington Community Church. We're not a big church – maybe 90 people on a good Sunday – but we’ve a high proportion of people with social, physical, and mental dysfunction, which is absolutely fantastic. They can find belonging here.”

“From day one, we had a vision of a caring, dynamic, multicultural family sharing God's love with our community. We started a community trust, and we’ve a community centre that operates five days a week where we hold community meals and large events.”

“Part of our vision has always been to be a hub, so anyone in the Mount Wellington area with physical, spiritual, or emotional needs knows where to get help. At the moment we've four houses, plus the church all next to each other. But our church building is woefully inadequate. Last Sunday, I was up a ladder screwing back a bit of ceiling that had fallen down. So, we’ve been looking at ways to fund a purpose built community centre for 15 years.”

A serendipitous conversation with a local doctor

Funding the new community hub was a challenge for the church. Russell explains, “As a church, we don't demand of our people in a financial sense. We’ve some very generous givers, but we don’t take a collection on Sunday. We’re very mindful of that because we did a survey in the community when we started. One of the questions we asked was, ‘What do you think of Christians?’ And the main answer that came back was, ‘Churches are only after your money’.”

One day Russell was at the local doctor for a check-up, and his doctor said, “Who owns the building you occupy?”

Russell said, ‘Well, we do.’”

His doctor said, “Are you interested in selling?”

Russell said, “No, not really. But why do you ask?”

It turned out the local medical centre was getting too small for the doctor’s practice. The team needed somewhere new. So, Russell explained that they were thinking of building a community hub. And the doctor said, “Well we'd be really keen to be involved.”

Russell says, “Our vision had always been a purpose-built community centre with a café, kids’ playground, and meeting rooms. The medical centre would make it a one-stop shop. Added to that, we planned to replace the old houses with 18 units of affordable housing.”

Finding funding to get the show on the road

Russell explains, “We've had three attempts at getting something to happen, but it wasn't till I connected with Christian Savings three years ago that the ball started rolling. They met with me as potential funders and said, ‘This is a fantastic project, we love it.’ They introduced us to Gemelli and Gemelli have become a critical part of our team.”

“Gemelli started out doing the financial modelling for our hub redevelopment, looking at the costing, and how we could afford the build. But they quickly took on a bigger role. James put together a memorandum of information for investors, which has been absolutely fantastic because it presents our project as a serious professional proposition.”

“Recently the government opened up this new Affordable Housing Fund. James asked permission to apply on our behalf, and we said yes. He’s run that application single-handed, and it's been fantastic. If that funding comes through and it does look likely, that's $6.3 million and we’re full steam ahead to the next stage of the project.”

“Having James on the team has given me incredible confidence through the whole funding application process. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development will send me an email asking for more details on our submission. And I haven't got a clue. But James gets back to them and says, ‘Yes we made that assumption based on the comparative pricing of properties in the area’. Having James at my side has made this whole process stress free.”

Credibility, connections, and personal support

Russell says, “James and the Gemelli team offer fantastic support. They’re so encouraging and they’ve contributed in so many ways. Recently, James was working on another project in South Auckland alongside people from the funding organisation Foundation North. He told them about our project, and they said, ‘That's cool, send us some info’. As pastor of a little church in Mount Wellington, I’ve been trying to get hold of Foundation North for years with no luck. But because of James’s credibility and his connections, he was able to facilitate that intro.”

“Another thing Gemelli has done is smooth our path with local government. We have to talk with endless local government bodies. And Gemelli carry a lot more weight than I do because of their professional credibility, so that's been very helpful as well.”

“Working with Gemelli is pleasant and enjoyable. James and I have become friends. He’s interested in our whole mission, not just the job he’s doing for us. He never makes me feel like I’m asking stupid questions. It's an ideal working relationship and he's an ideal person to work with. Often when you're dealing with people, there's chinks in their armour. For example, they might do a good job, but they're slow in replying. There's none of that with Gemelli.”

“It’s tricky to say where they’ve added most value, because in a sense it's everywhere. We couldn’t have got to the stage we’re at without Gemelli, that's the bottom line. They’ve done the hard mahi for us at every level, but there's also that element of personal support. I'm sure there are a hundred companies that could do a feasibility study for us and check our figures, but I doubt there are many companies that would come alongside in the way Gemelli has.”

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