By Matthew Townsend

Users of Google Maps are likely familiar with the digital giant’s Street View system, which allows for virtual exploration of many streets throughout the world. Google’s camera truck drives down a street, taking photos of everything its lenses see as it passes by. Google then integrates these images into Street View.

These panoramic images help users see a destination before they arrive: check out whether there’s parking in front of that restaurant, if a hotel is easy to reach from the Interstate, or if an apartment for rent is in a pleasant neighborhood. Google has expanded this service to include detailed, 360-degree video tours of specific locations — like downtown Syracuse, New York.

When staff members of St. Paul’s Church, Syracuse, heard of this, they decided to pursue a Google tour as part of their strategy of engaging a changing downtown population. According to the Downtown Committee of Syracuse, that population has increased by 50 percent since 2006 to 3,250 residents. The occupancy rate is a steady 99 percent.

“There are so many people living downtown now, and they’re opening up more and more buildings for residential purposes,” said Judy McAdoo-Pelton, business manager for St. Paul’s. She said revitalization efforts coordinated by the committee have resulted in a substantial increase in residential and business activity. Old factories are being converted into loft spaces and millennials are moving downtown.

The committee decided to make these tours available to members of Syracuse’s downtown community in order to show the change that’s apace. St. Paul’s was able to leverage this opportunity for just $259 in photography fees.

McAdoo-Pelton, whose background is in tourism marketing, said the tours — which include the narthex and sanctuary — allow people to see St. Paul’s if they’re considering the space for a concert, a wedding, or as their parish. “Once you set foot in a place, you take on a sense of belonging,” she said. “It becomes comfortable and easier for people to walk through the door once they’ve been to a place.”

St. Paul’s has not only opened its doors to Google but also to Syracuse Symphoria’s casual concerts, visiting artists, choral groups, and other cultural events. The Rev. Philip Major, rector of St. Paul’s, said parishioners recently volunteered in shifts to keep the church accessible during a downtown Syracuse open house. They gave tours, while an expert guided people past the parish’s stained glass. Major said St. Paul’s opens its doors whenever possible. “Our members definitely reach out to welcome people in these non-liturgical times and settings.”

Major is a recent transplant to Syracuse — he joined St. Paul’s staff a few months ago. In addition to working downtown, he also lives there.

“Downtown is very busy,” Major said, with much of the action within three blocks of the church. “This is pretty mind-blowing, because I moved downtown. There are thousands of people living downtown in Syracuse. You would not believe it.”

This rebirth of the city’s downtown isn’t just spurring St. Paul’s to open its doors. The church is also changing. Major said that a decade ago, most parishioners commuted from elsewhere. Now, about 10 percent of St. Paul’s members live downtown. “It’s made us feel much more rooted to this place where we’re located,” he said.

There are also more businesses and workers downtown, around 27,000 according to the Downtown Committee, and St. Paul’s has drawn from that population with a Thursday noon service. One such parishioner works for a business that, when he joined 30 years ago, was based downtown. “The business was downtown and moved to the suburbs. Well, guess what, five years ago, they moved back downtown.”

Major said most new residents of downtown are millennials and younger people, and a few have joined the church. St. Paul’s, the only Episcopal church downtown, has had many visitors and a few joiners who have had no prior experience with church at all. They walk in, he said, because it’s a beautiful space. After that, “the degree of our openness and welcoming to them makes a very big difference.”

McAdoo-Pelton agreed. “It’s another reason why we have a very elaborate website and we’ve chosen to do the Google tours. We want to stay very current with the technology available, especially if we want to relate to the age group of the people who are living downtown.”

Major said it simply seemed logical to use the same tools that your neighbors and prospective members are using: “It shows that we’re actually focused on welcoming people where they are at.”

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