JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Leaders for The Well, an East Tennessee State University (ETSU) campus non-denominational ministry, started praying years ago about the property at 820 W. Walnut St. just off campus that hosted a series of nightclubs up until several years ago.
“Lots of things have happened at 820 West Walnut Street over the course of about the last 50 years,” Well founder and director James McNeill said Thursday. “For the better part of 25 years, we’ve been praying over that property and asking God to transform it and to make it a place where the gospel would be proclaimed.”
That prayer has been answered, and roughly a year from now the 1.8-acre tract will be home to a brand new, 18,000-square-foot student center. It will house The Well’s offices, include a 500-seat auditorium and include ample space for the ministry’s hundreds of students to break out into the small group sessions McNeill said are so important.
“If we have the opportunity to get them in a circle, a small group, we really see dynamic growth happen in their lives,” McNeill said of The Well participants.
Those opportunities have occurred in all sorts of locations since McNeill, an ETSU graduate himself, planted the seeds of the ministry while still a student.
“For 26 years we have met in rented and borrowed spaces … and it’s always been our desire to do ministry within walking distance of the university,” he said.
The real beginnings of the current project, which shows a $6 million value on a building permit pulled this week, came when about 50 families donated enough for the non-profit to buy the property for $900,000 in late 2018. As McNeill and his staff continued working to reach a generation of students he said enters college with many of them barely knowledgeable about the Bible, funds were being raised in hope of building on the property.
“100 percent of our funding has come through people throughout the region that want to see the next generation won for Christ,” McNeill said, adding that The Well still needs about $2.3 million to finalize construction costs.
He said he’s thrilled about what the new digs can mean for The Well, its mission and the community.
“It’s going to open us up to even greater numbers of students as we are surrounded by the largest dorms on campus, off-campus student housing, the baseball field and housing that’s moving toward Walnut Street,” McNeill said. “It’s going to give us ample opportunities to continue to minister to college students on a daily basis.”
The auditorium will host The Well’s weekly worship and teaching series, which currently meets downtown. McNeill said the hope is to continue doing what he said The Well has done for years, now while serving a generation of students he said have higher rates of suicide and anxiety than previous ones.
“Throughout our 26 years in ministry we have seen God do remarkable things in the lives of college students,” he said. “We’ve seen countless college students come to faith in Jesus Christ. We’ve seen believers really grow and leave college with a Biblical worldview, and we send them out with the hope of the Gospel wherever life and ministry might take them.”
A six-day-a-week coffee shop is also in the plans for the center.
“Where college students and people throughout our community are welcome to come grab a cup of coffee, study, have a meeting, whatever your day might entail,” McNeill said.
The property is along West Walnut Street’s $33 million city-funded redevelopment project.
Johnson City’s Economic Development Director, Alicia Summers, said The Well’s private investment is exactly what city leaders were hoping to see when they started the project.
“One of our other goals was the connection between ETSU and the West Walnut corridor and with The Well and the function that they serve here in the community certainly goes to the importance of that,” Summers said.
McNeill said construction could be complete in time for The Well to begin using the space when students return to campus for the fall 2024 semester.