CONWAY — The Conway City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allow Soul Food Cafe Mission to conduct religious activities at its new building on Donaghey Avenue, a request that previously caused controversy.
Co-executive director Rick Harvey told City Council members that he met for breakfast with a few residents of the Spring Valley subdivision, many of whom opposed the request, and they came to an agreement.
“We had a really, really good discussion,” Harvey said.
David Giorgi, president of the Spring Valley Property Owners Association, who spoke against the request at the Conway Planning Commission meeting, spoke in favor of the request Tuesday night. He cited the “excellent” meeting with Harvey and neighbors.
“We urge the city to adopt and approve unanimously [the request], and we welcome Rick … to the neighborhood,” Giorgi said.
Although the Conway Planning Commission recommended 7-2 that the City Council approve the request without conditions, Harvey said he wanted to offer five conditions “as an olive branch.”
Those conditions, accepted by the City Council, are as follows:
• The mission’s operating hours will be 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
• The mission will have no overnight stays; the property won’t be used as a homeless shelter.
• The conditional-use permit will be only for Soul Food Cafe Mission.
• Violet Street will not be used; Donaghey Avenue will be the only entrance and exit used.
• An 8-foot fence, which is under construction, will be erected on the north side of the building.
Harvey said the Conway City Council meeting went better than he expected.
“I can’t even believe it,” he said Wednesday morning. “It’s a God thing when you not only get what you want, but everybody comes together.
“What was so neat was these neighbors came to me after the meeting and shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’ and the look on their faces — it was just an incredible experience. There were no hard feelings.”
Attorneys for the American Center for Law and Justice represented the mission for free. Harvey said his attorneys worked with City Attorney Chuck Clawson.
“He played an integral part in this,” Harvey said of Clawson. “He went the extra mile for us. I think our city officials are incredible
people; I think they really care for the community.”
Mayor Bart Castleberry praised the cooperation between Harvey and the residents.
“I think this has been a great lesson to a lot of folks that when opposing sides just finally sit down to the table and visit, you can accomplish much,” the mayor told Harvey during the meeting.
Residents of two neighborhoods signed petitions against the original request of Soul Food Cafe Mission, which was to operate a temporary emergency shelter at its Donaghey Avenue building. Opponents cited increased foot traffic through their neighborhoods, vehicular traffic and potential for more crime and lowering of property values as reasons for their opposition to the request.
Soul Food Cafe Mission is a church, Harvey said, which he and his wife, Traci, co-founded 16 years ago. Every Tuesday, it provides free food boxes, a hot meal, clothing, haircuts, two church services and more. It has operated in several churches and locations throughout the years.
The 14,400-square-foot metal building on 6 acres at 1717 Donaghey Ave. is nearing completion. Harvey said it lacks heating and air, a dropped ceiling and a vented oven hood in its commercial kitchen. The building is being used as a warehouse.
The mission will continue to operate throughout January at Conway First Church of the Nazarene until the new building is ready.
“We’re shooting for the first week of February, but we’re really going to have to work feverishly,” Harvey said.
Traci Harvey was crying when she left Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
“She was overjoyed,” Rick Harvey said. “She couldn’t even sleep.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.