Church-buys-bar is a man-bites-dog phenomenon. But South Side Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky, has no plans to apply for a liquor license at the old Salty Dog Saloon.

Church leaders say they are in the conversion business and plan to transform the cocktail lounge into the El Ji Moore Activity Center and a meeting site for Alcoholics Anonymous.

The unusual acquisition occurred last April after the saloon's owner changed his mind and agreed to sell the building. The owner's offer came five days before the congregation of South Side Baptist would have voted on shifting a $100,000 donation earmarked for the saloon purchase to an elevator project. "It's been a thorn in my flesh," says pastor Harold Pike, who saw a previous purchase attempt fail when a different owner increased the price. "I told people thousands of times, 'We're going to get it one day.' " Sitting in the shadows of Cincinnati's gleaming new $453 million football stadium, Covington's South Side Baptist is like many inner-city congregations. A steady suburban exodus left behind fading Sunday attendance and accompanying financial shortages.

But Pike, a native Kentuckian, points out that week-day outreach by South Side Baptist illustrates how his church interacts with more people today than in its heyday four decades ago.

Christian education, job training, recreation, and family events will soon fill the center's calendar, says Amy Cummins, the center's director. But that goal is uncertain. Although South Side Baptist had enough money to buy the bar, it has yet to fully fund the center's operating budget. Tight finances have left South Side struggling just to cover the director's salary.

Church leaders, however, are focusing on keeping the cost of both ministry ...

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