The Pleasant Valley Assembly of God congregation has spent recent years reaching out to other areas and other people, with its Nehemiah project and related work in the heart of the city.
Now the suburban congregation plans to reach forward, with a $4 million, multi-phase project to create a new home church complex a half mile from its current location in Pleasant Valley.
"It's not necessarily for my generation," said Pastor Jim Balzano, 49, from offices already relocated to the new site near the Valley View Health and Rehabilitation Center. "But to set up the next generation with a pretty good tool."
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Pastor Jim Balzano works in his office at 1001 S. First St. The offices and a room where the teens meet were the first construction projects at the church’s new site.
His generation has benefited from successive upgrades since the 1930s at Pleasant Valley Boulevard and South Eighth Street - "bought and paid for, and not by us," he said.
It started with "a little white church on the other side of the creek" and continued with projects in the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s - including construction of the present church in 1967, he said.
But that site is circumscribed by the creek, roadways and houses - which led to the church being separated from a parking lot and its former recreation building by busy Eighth Street and separated from its former offices by a side street and several homes.
Trying to grow there was difficult and even dangerous, especially for kids, who had to watch for cars when coming and going, Balzano said.
The new location at the former Blue & White bus garage on First Avenue and County Road 102 is big enough to expand further with all functions within one structure.
Pleasant Valley Assembly of God is the "closest thing Altoona has to a megachurch," city Planning Director Lee Slusser said at a recent meeting, at which Ken Szala of Lehman Engineers presented the project for land development approval.
The move has actually been under way for three years, with the purchase of the new property, the move of the administrative offices to the front of the old bus garage and the selling of the office, parking lot and the recreation building at South Eighth Street.
This year, the congregation hopes to renovate the rest of the bus garage to create a multi-purpose space, while adding foyers and a kitchen in the 14,000-square foot existing building - the first phase.
There will be two additional phases, although Balzano isn't sure which will come first.
One will be construction of a sanctuary as an addition attached to the south side of the former garage, the side closest to Valley View.
The other will be construction of an educational wing on the other side of the garage.
The sanctuary will seat 900 people - 400 on the floor and the rest in two balconies built over storage and kitchen space.
The stage will be in the corner of the building closest to Valley View Boulevard and the Valley View, resulting in an asymmetrical configuration, Balzano said.
The two-story educational wing will consist of classrooms for kids.
Ultimately, the project will result in shifting the front of the building from the side closest to and parallel to Valley View Boulevard to the opposite side.
A foyer across that new front will tie the fronts of the sanctuary, multi-purpose segment and educational wing together.
There will be a cafe off that foyer, a place to gather.
"We like sharing life together," Balzano said. "We like hanging out with each other."
The exterior facing of the completed building will likely be split block and a stucco-type finish, Balzano said.
The new front foyer will look out onto a small parking lot.
Beyond that parking lot will be a retaining wall, and beyond that, on higher ground, a much larger parking lot connected to the smaller one by steps, according to Szala.
There will be a total of 145 parking slots, Szala said.
Driveway access will be to First Street and to Highway 102, which runs in front of the property parallel to Valley View Boulevard, then turns 90 degrees, intersecting the boulevard at a traffic light.
At the time of the Planning Commission meeting, there was uncertainty about whether the county had sold County Road 102 when it sold Valley View, and whether the stretch of roadway that connected the Y in front of the nursing home with First Street was part of County Road 102 - or a private road - and if so, whether it was part of the property sold to the church.
The commission members feared that if the churchgoers lacked right of access to the road that connected to the traffic light, they would need to exit by First Avenue to the boulevard at an unprotected intersection, which would mean dangerous left turns.
However, County Commissioner Terry Tomassetti and senior city planner Nic Ardizzone confirmed Thursday that the entire thoroughfare between First Street at the corner of the church property and the boulevard at the light remains Highway 102, and open to public travel.
The cost of a move like the one to Valley View "can be a little scary at times," Balzano said.
But "we didn't have a nickel to our name" at the beginning of the Nehemiah Project, which over several years burgeoned into a neighborhood revitalization effort after initial acquisition of a blighted church building on 11th Street in lower Fairview, Balzano said.
That has cost about $1.3 million.
"It's amazing how funds come about," Balzano said. "God is always the difference maker between what we have and what we don't."
Even as the congregation remains committed to its inner city work, it plans to take the same approach with the Valley View project, he said.
Although he's not sure how long it will all take, Balzano wants to continue his church's farsighted gift legacy by getting the new complex built and paid for, "so when our days our done, the next generation can carry on," he said.
"God has been good to us," he said.