The many lives of Carter Payne

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Jeff Zearfoss and Melissa Howard plan a million-dollar project for the historic Carter Payne building. (Photo by Cameron Moix)

The historic Carter Payne building in downtown Colorado Springs has had many rebirths — it was originally a church, then an office building, an event venue, and most recently, home to a few failed concepts — and now is being transformed into a community space with a brewery, taproom and co-op restaurant.

Local husband-and-wife team Melissa Howard and Jeff Zearfoss, who own Local Relic brewery and Common Cause Catering, have a contract to purchase the 119-year-old, 6,500-square-foot building at 320 S. Weber St. and 128 Pueblo Ave. They moved into the Carter Payne last year and have been working to restore and renovate the historic structure, which they plan to open this year with a concept new to the Springs.

“This project has turned into a lot more than a tasting room,” Howard said. “Now, we really want to be a food and drink destination for southeast downtown. We want it to be affordable and approachable — off the beaten path of what most restaurants are offering.”

Plans include constructing a taproom at the northeast corner of the former sanctuary, offering 20 to 30 beers on tap and another 20 to 30 bottles. Because of its designation as a manufacturer taproom, customers will also be able to purchase Local Relic beers to take with them. The southwest corner of the sanctuary will house a cocktail bar that will offer a seasonal, rolling selection of eight to 10 drinks plus a wine list, according to Howard.

The large space is also slated to house four vendors — essentially booths with coolers, warmers and sinks — that will serve as a sort of incubator for local restaurateurs to test their food concepts. Howard said those booths will be available for 18- to 24-month leases.

“We really want to help people to move through those first couple of years,” she said. “We’re thinking of it as a food incubator.”

The concept is not unlike Avanti in Denver, which describes itself as a “collective eatery.”

Howard hopes to offer lunch and dinner at Carter Payne and would like the food to be simple farmers market fare, with each vendor offering three to four signature dishes.

“That would allow us to offer 12 to 16 menu items, which is pretty good,” she said.

Plans include adding a large deck with a fire pit that will sit around 70 people and reconstructing a west-facing addition (built in 1962) to the building as the multilevel Local Relic brewery. The two also want to improve the basement and create a barrel room and private events space.

The restaurant concept will have different seating options to create varying degrees of privacy and mood for customers, from  private booths to a couple of long family tables intended to bolster a sense of community at Carter Payne.

“Where I’m from in Pennsylvania, churches are gathering places for the whole community,” Zearfoss said. “That’s what this once was, and that’s what we want it to be again.”

The vendors will use Common Cause Catering’s downtown commercial kitchen — located just a few blocks away — to prepare their food. Howard expects to hire 20 employees to help run the new business.

As far as the name of the enterprise, Howard and Zearfoss are both adamant that the 119-year-old structure will keep its history and integrity intact.

“We’re going to continue branding it as the Carter Payne; it has always been the Carter Payne — that’s what it was at inception, and we’re really intent on honoring that history,” she said.

As they renovate the structure, Howard and Zearfoss are keeping the building’s history intact, using materials and techniques similar to the era in which it was built.

“We’ve very intentionally done things so that they don’t look shiny and new,” Howard said.

Evidence of their design intent is already on display at Carter Payne: They’ve redone the hardwood floors with a mix of red and white oak, and painted the sanctuary’s plaster walls and molding to make them appear authentic to the building.

Howard said she plans to display framed historic photographs and newspaper articles that outline the building’s rich history.

“We want to include anything that would let guests know what the building was and was for, because I think it’s important as a community to honor and respect that,” she said. “We would hate for anyone in that congregation or in the community to think that we took over this beautiful church and didn’t honor the history of it.”

Deep traditions

The building was originally constructed in 1897 on a triangular plot of land donated by Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer to the congregation of Payne Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (the city’s first black church), which was housed there until 1986. In the nearly 90 years the congregation worshiped in the space, the building played host to many notable speakers and the first meetings of the Colorado Chapter of the NAACP.

“The church is historically significant for the role it played in the social and religious lives of Colorado Springs’ African-American community, serving as a focal point in the movement for civil rights,” according to a 1998 state document detailing the property’s history.

“I remember we led a march in Colorado Springs in the 1960s,” church leader Samuel Hunter Jr. said in the document. “It was back during the time those four little girls were killed in Birmingham. We gathered at the church and marched to City Hall to show our support.”

In 1986, the congregation outgrew the downtown location and moved to a larger building in east Colorado Springs. Payne Chapel AME sold the building in 1987 to a group of real estate investors called the Pueblo Avenue Partnership, which converted it into office space.

Jeff Ahrendsen, the retired senior vice president of Hub International Insurance Services in Colorado Springs, was one of those investors. He purchased the property from his partners in 1993 and used it as office space for another two decades.

“I must have worked out of there for 25 years,” he said. “It’s a great building; we just outgrew our need for the space.”

El Paso County property records indicate that he sold it for $575,000 in August 2011 to Lynn Schlemeyer and Mike Cookson, who also own Garden of the Gods Gourmet.

Schlemeyer and Cookson converted the building into a wedding and events venue, marketing it simply as “The Carter Payne.” Carter was the surname of the church’s original pastor. But the venture was short-lived, and they began to lease the space.

In 2012, New Life Church announced plans to lease the building with plans to create a downtown satellite campus for their then 11,000-member congregation. After that plan went bust, Carter Payne became home to Green Man Taproom & Beer Garden in 2014, but was shuttered the following year.

Subsequently, the space was fingered as the location for the long-planned Colorado Springs Public Market. But due to a lack of funding, that concept too proved a failure.

Next steps

Howard and Zearfoss say they have “locked in a purchase price” with the current owners and are looking to close on the property in the coming months — although they aren’t sure about the specific timeline.

“That is the million-dollar question — literally,” Howard said, adding the owners are counting their renovations toward the sale price. “We’re in the ballpark of a million-dollar project, when all is said and done.”

Currently, the couple is working with a bank to finalize their Small Business Administration loan for the building.

“We’re just waiting on this last little piece to move forward,” Howard said. “I can’t wait — I love this little part of downtown.”

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