Urbana Property Miracle

In the 22 years I have been pursuing a relationship with God I have prayed for things both large and small. 

I have prayed for direction and felt God clearly give it. I have prayed the same prayer and heard nothing.

I have prayed for healing for someone and seen them healed. I have prayed the same prayer and had them taken.

I have prayed for provision for the work He has called me to and received it. I have prayed the same prayer and struggled for periods of time when it did not come.

I have prayed God would help me to be the kind of husband, father, friend, and leader I know He wants me to be and have experienced periods when I felt deeply connected to Him and in the center of His will. I have prayed the same prayer and felt completely lost and like a failure at every turn.

I have learned and am still learning so much from every prayer.

Those who do not believe as I do might explain away some of the answers to prayer I have experienced as mere coincidence or with some other perfectly reasonable earthly explanation. I have been fortunate to have also seen God answer prayers in ways that are not so easily explained away. This has happened when I have been in situations for which I have run out of options. When I have been forced to realize I am powerless.

One such situation occurred earlier this year.

We opened our Urbana location in November 2017 under a lease-to-purchase agreement for the property. This agreement was with Niemann Foods, the parent company of County Market and Harvest Market grocery stores. When we experienced a slow start after opening and a lack of expected capital for the buildout, we found ourselves in a very difficult financial position. As we struggled to make our monthly payments throughout 2018 and into 2019, falling further and further behind, we were forced to step out of the original agreement and into a standard lease.

With no reasonable expectation, our situation was going to change any time soon, and no desire to retain ownership of the property, Niemann listed it for sale at $2.6 million sometime in 2019. With no ability to even entertain the idea of buying the property we were forced to just keep moving forward and hope either no one expressed an interest in buying it or if someone did, they would want to retain us as a tenant.

As time went on God continued to bless our efforts and in September of 2019, we turned the corner. From that point on we never missed a rent payment, were able to meet all our monthly obligations consistently, and began paying down the debts we had accrued. While Covid wreaked havoc, God saw fit to make us stronger and stronger as an organization as we continued to serve the community.

As February was ending in 2022, I received an email from the property manager for Niemann. She (Shan) had just heard from their real estate broker that U-Haul was very interested in purchasing the property and turning it into a self-storage facility. Apparently, they had already walked through the customer areas of our building and wanted to set up a time to see the non-customer areas and take measurements of the ceilings, docks, and other things operationally important to them.

As I read the email it was like someone punched me in the gut as the air left my lungs. Things had been going so well for the past two-plus years I had foolishly allowed myself to forget the precariousness of our situation. Now, all the work we had put into building community and bringing programs and services to an area desperately in need of them was in serious jeopardy. While we had made our rent every month since turning the corner, and significant progress on the outstanding debt with our other vendors, the back rent was not something we had addressed yet. We were in no position to secure traditional financing to even make an offer on the property. I didn’t know what we were going to do.

The next morning, I emailed our board of directors to let them know and ask them to be in prayer God would give us His wisdom and discernment as we navigated the situation.

The following Monday (February 28th), prior to escorting the broker and the U-Haul rep through our space, I explained the situation to our leadership staff and issued an organization-wide letter explaining what was going on. I emailed a version of this letter to a handful of our church and community partners, along with a couple who had supported us from the very beginning. I hoped to settle any fears and provide steady leadership while communicating what God put on my heart. This is an excerpt from that letter/email. 

“Over the last 18 years, I have seen God bless and grow this ministry beyond anything I could have ever imagined or accomplished under my own will. I have no doubt He will continue to do so. Now, does this mean I know exactly how this is going to turn out? I don’t. What I know is God will see us through, and when it’s over it will be just one more chapter in the work he has done and will continue to do through the ministry of Salt & Light. My faith in God’s plan for Salt & Light does not mean we just sit idly by and wait for things to happen. We are doing everything we can in exploring options and plans for how we remain in this building and what we will do if that becomes an impossibility.”

While I believed everything I said, that didn’t mean I wasn’t struggling with the reality of our situation.

The day after escorting the broker and the U-Haul rep through the property, I emailed Shan and asked her if negotiations progressed and if they were considering a legitimate offer, would they allow us to match it. I had no idea how we would do that but wanted to keep the door open. She said she would be glad to present and encourage an offer to Rich, the president of Niemann Foods, but that our time frame would likely be limited.

Two days later (Thursday, March 3rd), Shan emailed me to say,

“It was suggested that you make your BEST offer, and we will seriously consider it, even if it is not the highest. This offer should also include how much of Salt and Light’s outstanding balance will be included in this offer and a payment plan to pay off the balance. Please have this LOI back to us by Tuesday, March 8th, end of day. I realize this does not give you much time, but to my complete surprise, there was an offer in my email this morning from another company, and I am told U-Haul is likely to make an offer as well this week.”

Things seemed to be moving at the speed of light and I was struggling to get ahead of what felt like an oncoming freight train. I thanked Shan for the opportunity and emailed the board with the latest.

I had several conversations with our board chair (Sky) and other members of the board culminating in an emergency meeting. At this meeting we acknowledged we were in no position to secure traditional financing to make an offer to buy the property and our only option was to try and “sweeten” our lease arrangement with Niemann, encouraging them to retain ownership and us as the primary tenant. Sky had spoken with Vance Barr (A former board member and commercial real estate broker.) about this idea, and he helped in drafting a proposal. The following Tuesday morning I sent the “offer” to Niemann.

After sending the offer I sent an update to some of the same partners I had emailed initially. I included the offer we made and asked them to pray Niemann would accept it.

Later that evening I received an email from the long-time donors. They had not responded to my initial email so this one surprised me. In it, they shared a couple of ideas, including that if Salt & Light’s board believed God wanted us in this building and we could afford it, they might be able to arrange financing. Sitting on my couch at home I sat there stunned as I reread the email on my phone. While I didn’t know what exactly they had in mind it certainly looked like God might be providing a path forward.

During a phone call with them the next morning they committed to personally financing the purchase of the property at a rate that would lower our monthly occupancy expenses from what we were currently paying by just over $4,000, saving us almost $50K a year. On top of this, we would be able to apply for a property tax exemption, saving us another $90K a year. We were potentially going from thinking we were losing the building to owning it and being in an even better position financially than we were before all of this started!

This was not a super difficult decision for the board to make. We engaged Vance’s help again, this time to put together an LOI and make an offer on the property. We had no idea what U-Haul or the other company was offering and just had to focus on what we could do. The price of the property had been lowered twice since being listed at $2.6M and was now at $1.865M. We knew this was not an entirely unreasonable number but there were two significant factors for us in putting together an offer:

  1. Having occupied the space for over four years we knew the roof needed replaced. Niemann had been limping it along and while we knew we could do the same for a while, it needed replaced sooner rather than later.
  2. We had incurred serious debt with Niemann because of the delinquent rent we had accrued during those first two years to which they had levied significant interest. All told we owed about $560K.

We decided the offer we could live with and might make sense to them was to offer the full asking price of $1.865M if as a part of the agreement they forgave all our outstanding debt. We knew this was a big ask but hoped with all the different factors involved they might accept it. Vance submitted our offer Saturday, March 12th.

I updated our employees and sent another update to the community partners. I asked everyone to pray Niemann would accept our first offer. Vance had said rarely is the first offer accepted without at least some back and forth, let alone with what we were asking. I figured God had seen us this far, so why not.

Thursday, March 17th we were informed Niemann had accepted our offer with no substantive changes!

The next two months were crazy busy as we worked through inspections of all kinds as part of the due diligence period and finalized the purchase agreement. Having never been a part of a commercial real estate transaction before I had no idea how much was involved, and we were fortunate to have someone like Vance in our corner throughout the process. Thursday, June 9th we closed on the property.

During this two-and-a-half-month journey, we had countless people praying over the situation. Thank you if you were one of them. The generosity of the donors and their continued faithfulness to the call God has placed on them continues to be a testimony to me. I consider myself privileged to continue to have a front-row seat to what God is doing in our community through the ministry of Salt & Light. This is yet one more situation with God’s fingerprints all over it and I am thankful for the testimony this has been and will be to so many.

In His love,

Nathan Montgomery

Executive Director

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