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One year later: Church looks back, ahead

The Rev. Sam Brink stands near his parish’s former home on Wisconsin Avenue in Oconomowoc on March 25. First Baptist Church is now housed in a former city hall building in nearby Ixonia.  Photo by Corey Hengen

The Rev. Sam Brink stands near his parish’s former home on Wisconsin Avenue in Oconomowoc on March 25. First Baptist Church is now housed in a former city hall building in nearby Ixonia. Photo by Corey Hengen

Sean Ryan
sean.ryan@dailyreporter.com

Chad Zeznanski’s porch overlooks a vacant lot where the First Baptist Church of Oconomowoc and a house stood until April 2, 2008.

That’s the day an explosion — caused when workers for Luxemburg-based Dorner Inc. ruptured a gas line — blew up the church and two nearby houses.
Zeznanski quipped that his house gets more sunlight now that the buildings are gone. On a more serious note, he is interested in redeveloping the area.

Along with business partner Jim Hodson, Zeznanski, a developer, is securing the rights to buy a row of houses along Wisconsin Avenue so the land can be redeveloped into storefronts and condos.

Zeznanski said he started working on the development before last year’s accident. Back then, First Baptist wasn’t interested in selling its corner property. Now that the church is gone, there’s a better chance of the location near Oconomowoc’s lakefront and downtown being redeveloped, he said.

“I think for any developer — if it was us or anybody — you want the corner site,” Zeznanski said. “The church wouldn’t have sold and wouldn’t have moved.”

The First Baptist congregation doesn’t have plans for the property, but it is in no hurry to make a decision, said the Rev. Sam Brink, a transition pastor that took over at First Baptist a year and a half ago when the previous pastor had health problems.

The congregation used insurance money from its destroyed church building to buy the former Ixonia Town Hall. The new location is roughly six miles from the old church in Oconomowoc.

“We just did makeshift things — a table with a cloth on it to start with,” Brink said of creating a new gathering place in the old town hall location.

“It’s nothing like this,” he said while standing the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Worthington Street where First Baptist Church once stood. “It’s an old town hall, but it has a big meeting space.”

Although the town hall is not the same as a historic church with stained glass and a pipe organ, Brink said the congregation is comfortable in Ixonia.

First Baptist still has money left over from its insurance to pay for a new project, he said, and church members are kicking around a few ideas. They include rebuilding on the original site, building an addition onto the Ixonia location or buying land and starting fresh.

“It’s one of those things,” Brink said. “Word is getting out to our members that people are interested, and the city might have some interest, but nothing formal.”

Tanya Toepfer has been a member of First Baptist since she was born and was married in the church. She said she isn’t backing any particular plan for the church’s future, but she wouldn’t have a problem with the former church site being redeveloped.

“It’s really hard to tell where we are going right now,” she said. “We are at peace where we are and we’re just kind of kicking around a lot of ideas.”

Chad Zeznanski of Oconomowoc recounts the day a church and two homes exploded on April 2, 2008, after contractors struck an underground gas line. Zeznanski has designs on redeveloping the area into retail and condos.  Photo by Corey Hengen

Chad Zeznanski of Oconomowoc recounts the day a church and two homes exploded on April 2, 2008, after contractors struck an underground gas line. Zeznanski has designs on redeveloping the area into retail and condos. Photo by Corey Hengen

Zeznanski said he doesn’t expect anything to happen to the property for a few years because the economy is putting development plans, including his, on hold.

An outline of rocks with one or two of the church’s red bricks shows where the building’s walls once stood. Gesturing at the lines in the grass, Brink said it would be difficult to rebuild the church because modern setback laws would require the walls to be much farther back from the sidewalk than they were originally.

Toepfer said she didn’t have any hard feelings toward Dorner over the church explosion. She said the explosion actually drew her and her husband, Jack, back to the congregation after they considered joining another church.

“It was a good thing,” she said. “It was something that the Lord allowed to happen because there’s going to be constant good things coming out of it.”

One comment

  1. Baron Von Bootlegger

    It’s rather sad that the neighbor of this church, a self-proclaimed “developer” (my kid draws pictures too) how he noted that he had ideas for that property but the church wouldn’t sell — but now, because the church blew up, he said his property gets more sun? Is this insight into how “developers” view our City? Wow. We’re slowly losing our unique ambiance.

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