HATTIESBURG, Miss. — God changes everything. That's the message Venture Church leaders are sharing as Remington's Hunt Club continues its transformation from a controversial nightclub to a celebrated place of worship.
"It had a past that was checkered," Venture Church Executive Pastor Jason Golden said. "God led us here, and we were able to take a facility that was built for entertainment and transform it into an entertainment venue that presents the gospel."
Since being purchased by Venture Church in December, the 60,000-square-foot building — which, in addition to the nightclub, was home to a bowling alley and deli — has undergone a transformation in both aesthetics and purpose.
"This place was abused and abandoned and it was left, and to be able to come back in here and take a building that was abandoned and vacated in our community and to see it come to life makes it even more exciting to know that's what God is going to do in the lives of people," said Byron Malone, Venture Church Hunt Club Campus pastor.
"To me it's the reality that God is a God who turns tragedy to triumph, who brings hope to places of despair and reclaims the broken."
In recent years, the Hunt Club has been more than familiar with tragedy.
The $4.4 million complex opened in 2006 as a venue for large concerts and high-profile performers. But as time went by, Hattiesburg Police Department officers began frequent visits.
According records Hattiesburg police responding to the Hunt Club 151 times between January and October 2010 and 85 times during the same time period in 2011.
The club made headlines when it became the site of a 2010 shooting that injured three Southern Miss football players and a 2011 shooting that left a Laurel man injured.
The club and adjacent properties, which were owned by William Norris, closed in 2012 and were in receivership following foreclosure and a bankruptcy settlement.
"We certainly knew they were having some issues as far as safety and security went, and we were aware of when the football players were shot," Golden said. "When it closed, it kind of faded into obscurity."
The building remained empty until Venture Church purchased the property for $800,000 in December.
Malone said at first sight of the location, God began putting everything together.
"We topped that hill on North 31 back there, and my mouth fell open," he said. "I could not believe there was a facility like this in Hattiesburg because this would look more like what we would build than probably what we are in right now on Lincoln Road."
Today, the parking lot — once flooded with overgrown islands, beer bottles, litter and other debris — has been mowed, swept and repainted by church members, and approximately 30,000 square feet of the building have been renovated into a satellite campus for the church.
The nightclub portion of the building has been turned into the church's atrium, coffee bar, classrooms and patio area. The Hunt Club's dance floor has become the Hunt Club Campus' auditorium with a capacity to seat 700 people.
Each Sunday, Senior Pastor Jeff Clark's message will be simulcast live at 9:30 and 11 a.m. from the church's Lincoln Road location to the Hunt Club Campus, allowing for more church members from different areas of the Pine Belt to attend service.
Praise and worship will be led on site.
"Right now we've got it set up for about 350," Malone said. "I love the flexibility of it. It's not placed seating or permanent seating so this room can actually be cleared. . (Venture Church's) attendance is about 2,700 on the weekends. Our growth has been phenomenal."
The additional 30,000 square feet will be renovated as part of the campus's second phase when funds are available.
Stephen Wilson, construction foreman for Southeastern Construction, said it's been interesting to see the building's metamorphosis during the past six months.
"Everything is just totally different," he said. "There's not really anything that was left from what it was."
Wilson said one of the most amazing things about working on the Hunt Club Campus job was the feedback he received from those he worked with.
"It's been really neat especially being here and seeing the people who came on the job — people who came here before when it was the Hunt Club," he said. "We've averaged about 40 to 50 workers here a day for about six months, and I've heard one negative comment."
Golden said the church has spent $3.5 million on this project including labor and the purchase of the property.
Malone said, while the renovation project has been a financial investment within the community, that's nowhere near as important as the church's mission within its broadened reach.
"Our purpose is to have an impact on people's lives," he said. "Our mission is to lead people to know, love and follow Jesus, and our vision is to be a church for people who've given up on church."
Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com