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Hobby Lobby donates former Johnson Products site to South Side church

Rev. Charles Jenkins stands outside former headquarters Soft Sheen/Carsbeauty products company 8522 S. Lafayette which has been donated Fellowship Missionary

Rev. Charles Jenkins stands outside the former headquarters of the Soft Sheen/Carson beauty products company, 8522 S. Lafayette, which has been donated to Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church 4543 S. Princeton. Monday, January 7, 2013 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 9, 2013 6:20AM

A historic South Side site tied to Chicago’s heyday as an African-American hair-care mecca may be the home of a megachurch — thanks to what its pastor says is a blessing.

The long-vacant site at 8522 S. Lafayette has been donated to the equally historical Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church by the Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby, Inc., which is run by the deeply religious Green family and its patriarch David Green.

It is unclear how much Hobby Lobby paid for the property. Fellowship is still raising funds for the $26 million project, which will include a school, a restaurant and retail shops.

“On New Year’s Eve, we got a life-changing phone call to let us know they were committed to formally and officially donating the property — with no consideration,” said the Rev. Charles Jenkins, pastor of Fellowship.

Currently located at 4543 S. Princeton, the church gained note in 1966, when its now retired founder the Rev. Clay Evans welcomed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to address his congregation despite political and some community opposition.

“As our church has grown, we were seeking to expand in a meaningful and holistic way to meet multiple needs, multiple issues and multiple ills in our community,” said Jenkins. “When Hobby Lobby learned of our vision, they were elated.”

The site, previously owned by the L’Oreal Group, is the former headquarters of Johnson Products Co., the international cosmetics empire founded in 1954 by entrepreneur George Ellis Johnson. He’d become the first African American to have a company listed on the American Stock Exchange. The company was sold in 1993.

Eventually, L’Oreal relocated to the site another former black hair-care icon — Soft Sheen Products — after purchasing that company in 1998 from entrepreneur Ed Gardner. L’Oreal moved that operation from the 14.5-acre Lafayette address to New York in 2004.

The property, with a 200,000-square-foot warehouse and 60,000 square feet of office space, had sat vacant since the move. Fellowship approached L’Oreal in 2009 to enter into a contract to buy the property for $8 million.

But that was before learning of the targeted philanthropy of the national arts and crafts chain known for buying real estate on behalf of Christian organizations that mirror the Green family’s religious convictions.

Fellowship reached out to Hobby Lobby, a company that boasts more than 500 stores nationwide and over $2 billion in sales annually. Good news came in 2010.

That’s when Hobby Lobby gave a thumbs-up to Fellowship’s vision for a community transformation, a vision that includes a megachurch with a theater-sized auditorium for the 8,000-member congregation of the nearly 60-year-old church.

A community center will offer mentoring, education and recreation programs to area youth. Supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), the project includes a new charter school and gymnasium; state of the art health center; casual dining restaurant, and up to seven retail shops.

It’s projected to create about 400 jobs. Fellowship has raised $1 million so far in an ongoing fund-raising campaign and hopes to break ground on the project in January 2014, with a projected move-in date of spring 2015.

Fellowship was able to terminate its purchase contract with L’Oreal in 2010.

Hobby Lobby then bought the site in December 2011, turning it over on Dec. 31.

“We weren’t involved in their negotiations and aren’t privy to any details of that purchase,” Jenkins said. “They are not interested in commenting. They are such a humble organization, and they do this so much that they like to remain humble throughout the process. This is about their relationship with God.”

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