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LDS Church exploring two options for long-term MTC expansion

Front of the Missionary Training Center, MTC, in Provo.  Jan. 14, 2008
Front of the Missionary Training Center, MTC, in Provo. Jan. 14, 2008
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

PROVO — The LDS Church is sharing with neighbors its ideas for a major expansion of the church's acclaimed but suddenly undersized Missionary Training Center in Provo.

“Church leaders are carefully evaluating long-term solutions for MTC expansion,” said Scott Trotter, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "This is a considerable effort that is ongoing and will take time.”

After meeting with MTC neighbors and Provo City planners last winter and extracting dozens of ideas and suggestions, church officials came back last month to residents and city officials with two possible options for expansion:

A south option, which takes in 12 acres of land immediately south of the current MTC campus and will require the elimination and relocation of several BYU services facilities;

A northeast option, which would expand across 900 East to the largely open 27-acre parcel that currently features a playing field, two water tanks and parking areas for both the MTC and nearby Provo Temple.

George Frye, one of the Provo neighbors who has seen both plans, said the church considers them both to be viable options. But as far as he is concerned, one is much better than the other.

“With the northeastern plan you’re creating something like the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in which you would see this visual link between the MTC and the temple,” Frye said. “The south plan is more compact and easier to control, easier for security because you’re just cramming as many buildings and missionaries into that space as possible. It’s like me fitting into my wedding suit — I can do it, but it isn’t pretty.”

Trotter said there is no timetable for when a decision on the two options will be announced or when construction work would begin on MTC expansion.

All of this effort and consideration is necessary because of the growing number of LDS missionaries who need to be trained prior to reporting for full-time service in the church’s 405 missions scattered around the world. That growth rate jumped last October when the minimum age for full-time missionary service by LDS young people was reduced to 18 for young men and 19 for young women.

“The response of our young people has been remarkable and inspiring,” said LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson during the first session of the 183rd Annual General Conference of the church earlier this month. President Monson indicated there will be 26,000 new missionaries ready for training during the next few months.

At the time of the announcement the church was already planning to make some adjustments to the MTC campus in Provo. A new nine-story, state-of-the-art building was planned to replace the smaller, outdated Melvin J. Ballard building, a decision that elicited a mixed reaction from residents who live close to the MTC.

But a week after the announcement church officials scuttled plans for the nine-story building.

“It seems pretty clear that everything changed after the announcement, and the nine-story building was no longer adequate to the church’s needs,” said Frye, who was among those who expressed opposition to the new tower.

“I’m not going to tell you I wasn’t relieved when I heard they scrapped plans for the nine-story building,” Frye said. “The biggest thing for me is, I always felt there was a better solution for the church and for the MTC.”

The new — and hopefully better — solution for MTC expansion in Provo has required work on two fronts. First, the immediate and pressing need created as a consequence of last October’s announcement had to be addressed. Figures shared with area residents during recent planning meetings indicate that there were 2,800 missionaries in the MTC when the announcement was made. Sometime this summer the number is expected to climb to about 7,800 missionaries before it eventually stabilizes at around 6,000 missionaries in 2016.

The church made two moves to respond to the immediate need. In January it announced that it would open a new MTC facility in Mexico City for missionaries called to serve in Mexico and other Latin American countries. And then in March church officials announced that they will open temporary MTC facilities in Provo at the Wyview Park and Raintree Commons apartment complexes.

Those two moves should provide immediate accommodations for up to 2,700 missionaries, taking significant pressure off of the existing Provo MTC facilities and allowing LDS leadership the time it needs to carefully evaluate their long-term options for expansion, Trotter said.

And that evaluation, Trotter continued, has included numerous meetings with area residents and Provo City planners to solicit input, ideas and support.

“Church representatives met with area residents multiple times to describe the need for growth of the MTC campus and to get feedback from the community,” Trotter said. “While residents have varying opinions, significant adjustments have been made based on input from neighbors, Brigham Young University and Provo City. We are grateful for the time and energy invested by the community.”

A big chunk of that time was spent last winter during a series of public meetings as well as meetings with individual property owners.

“It was fantastic,” said Lorie Johnson, who cares for her mother in her family’s home that borders the MTC campus on the west. “They presented a number of options, and then they listened to what we had to say. There were some really good ideas expressed, and (the church representatives) seemed to be really interested in what we had to say.”

The process contrasted with what residents said happened with the announcement of the nine-story building, which they say was presented as a “done deal,” with no input from them. When they objected to the tall building, which they felt would impact their views and property values, Johnson and Frey said they were portrayed by some in the community as being selfish and anti-church.

“We are definitely pro-missionary work and pro-MTC, and we understand and support the need for expansion,” said Johnson, who was among the most vocal critics of the plan. “We’re active members of the church. These are our children and grandchildren who are going on missions, and we are thrilled that they are going. It was totally unfair for people to say that we don’t support the church and we don’t support the missionary program.”

Beginning just days after the church publicly discontinued its nine-story plan, the process for strategizing long-term MTC expansion was launched in a very different way.

“We had this planning meeting in November,” said R. Paul Evans, chair of the Provo City Pleasant View Neighborhood Council. “They said they needed to double the capacity of the MTC. They presented a few ideas and then opened up the floor. It really felt like they wanted our input and they were listening.”

Provo City officials also attended and participated in the planning meetings, said Bill Peperone, assistant director of community development for the city.

“I believe the two plans that have been suggested accurately portray input that was given at this planning meeting,” Peperone said. “Because no formal application has been submitted to the city, there has not been sufficient review of the plans to form a formal preference or recommendation (from the city).”

However, Peperone did indicate that both plans have their advantages. The south plan, he said, “would minimize the need for missionaries to cross 900 East, which is a busy collector road” and likely to get busier as BYU closes streets on the interior of its campus. The northeast plan, he said, would have less visual impact on the Pleasant View neighborhood because the tallest buildings would be farther away.

Johnson, Evans and Frye indicated that although they have a definite preference for the northeastern plan, they can live with either plan — although they do have some concerns that would need to be worked out with the south plan, including the height of the buildings required to make everything fit in that smaller space. And in fairness, they pointed out that there are others in the neighborhood who prefer the south plan. In fact, a straw poll taken at one of the meetings showed strong support for both plans.

“We’re not telling the church what to do — we’re not making any demands,” Johnson said. “I just love that they came and got our input. We’ve been asked to let them know what we think, and we have done that.”

“They have a lot of things to consider here,” Evans said. “It’s their decision.”