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Developer works to rescue struggling Connecticut churches

Suppose a church cannot afford to maintain their property. It could opt to do what others have done and sell-off the church. Or, members of the church could go to someone like Haiko Cornelissen.

“They're asset rich, but cash poor. And so we help them convert these real estate assets into an income stream that they can use to survive,” Cornelissen said.

Cornelissen is an architect by training and the founding principal at Stewardship Realty, which specializes in helping churches redevelop and manage their properties.

But Cornelissen’s company isn’t trying to buy up the properties. Instead, he’s working with churches throughout Connecticut to redevelop their properties. Trumbull’s Economic Development Director Rina Bakalar said there’s already interest from churches in town, eager to prevent selling off their buildings.

Bakalar declined to say which houses of worship in town are communicating with Cornelissen, but said they’re already envisioning specific uses for their properties.

“The kinds of uses so far that have surfaced have been housing type services and particularly for seniors that came up a number of times, one facility, the kinds of interest that I've seen is more educational, that they might use the facility for, say, a school or preschool,” Bakalar said.

Bakalar came to know Cornelissen, after hearing about him from a congregation in town which merged with another one. She didn’t say why the churches needed his help, but did say many churches throughout the area suffer from low attendance rates and COVID didn’t help.

The Pew Research Center announced Tuesday,houses of worship have seen a slight drop off in in-person attendance rates nationwide since the start of the pandemic.

So if a church wants to work with Cornelissen, what does he do? He starts off by figuring out what they are trying to accomplish.

“First, we start with a real estate analysis, and a mission analysis,” Cornelissen said. “So from the very start of the process, when we work with churches, we include the mission as the essential component that is guiding everything else we do.”

According to Stewardship Realty, the company can either join forces with a church in a joint venture partnership, or manage its properties.

Ironically, Cornelissen has mostly worked with Protestant denominations, despite many Catholic churches shuttering doors over the years.

Cornelissen explained Protestant denominations aren’t as administratively centralized as the Catholic Church, so they don’t have as many resources to fall back on. The Archdiocese of Bridgeport did not respond to a request for comment.

But while Bakalar didn’t name any churches in Trumbull, the Episcopal Church of Connecticut did state it is working with Cornelissen on what to do with its properties. Rosanna Rosado is the canon for mission finance and operations. Rosado declined to go into detail on what the churches it oversees plan to do with its properties.

She said redevelopment isn’t a new concept, but COVID has made these discussions more urgent due to the drop off in attendance rates and donations.

“There have been several properties within the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, that have worked in the past with developers and, and have had wonderful experiences, have residual income, and and are fortified,” Rosado said.

Rosado said the churches need to make extra money in order to fund their programs. While many churches are cash strapped, they also benefit from generous zoning regulations for houses of worship, making redevelopment easier to do. But choosing the right partner is also crucial.

Rosado said redevelopment needs to be approached carefully in order for those projects to reflect the mission of the church. Cornelissen, who grew up in the Netherlands, now lives in New York, but has been involved with churches in the area and both Rosado and Bakalar heard about him through word of mouth.

Cornelissen said it's normal for parishioners or church leadership to be skeptical of his intentions, and says t he works with them because he’s also religious.

“I'm on the same page with them. I'm one of them,” Cornelissen said.

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