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Church property attracts tribal casino and boat retailer

Ronald Clark went to work for Family Harvest Church after resigning as pastor at Living Water Church.

JEFF TESTERMAN
Published February 24, 2004

TAMPA - Florida's biggest casino operator and one of the world's largest recreational boat builders have expressed an interest in bidding in the bankruptcy auction for the highly visible Living Water Church property on Interstate 4.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida, with huge revenues pouring into its new Hard Rock Casino less than a mile from the 16-acre church property, is interested in acquiring more land for overflow parking.

And the MarineMax boat retailer, with 60 locations in 15 states, could profit from the church property's I-4 frontage, as well as the lake on the northern edge of the Living Water tract.

Buddy Ford, the bankruptcy attorney for the church, said both parties expressed enough interest that Monday's 4 p.m. deadline for bids on the Living Water property was canceled. Instead, the church's board decided to extend the deadline for 30 days in the hope that a bidder will offer enough to allow the evangelical Christian church to pay its debts and relocate.

The only bid actually tendered by Monday was $3.1-million by the Family Harvest Church, a wealthy evangelical church in Tinley Park, Ill., which took over the Living Water Church's ministerial duties and provided financial assistance last summer.

MarineMax, whose officials could not be reached for comment Monday, made a $100,000 deposit to reserve the right to bid.

The Seminole Tribe made no deposit but continued discussions among tribal officials to determine the viability of acquiring the Living Water property.

"It's nearby and we're always looking for parking," said Seminole general counsel Jim Shore. "But at $3-million or more, I don't know that we'll come in (to the auction) with exhausts blazing."

With just $60 in its checking account and its membership decimated by the combative divorce of church co-founders Ronald and Belinda Clark, the Living Water Church filed for bankruptcy protection on Oct. 1. The church's main debt is a $2.8-million mortgage, while the value of the complex of buildings and land was put at $4.5-million, according to the most recent appraisal of the Living Water property.

Rather than liquidate the church, Living Water officials initially tried to sell the church assets to its new pastoral partners, the Family Harvest Church, for the bargain price of $3-million.

A bankruptcy judge warned the church in December it would have to honor higher bids for the protection of creditors, however, and the renewed interest in the property now has Living Water trustees hoping for a big bid to finance a move to the suburbs, Ford said.

Still pending are claims against Living Water by Ronald and Belinda Clark.

Ronald Clark, who went to work for Family Harvest after resigning as pastor at Living Water last June, claims he's still owed $120,000 in wages and retirement benefits.

Belinda Clark has filed a claim for $300,000.

In divorce papers, she asserts her husband operated the church as his alter-ego and thus, the church ought to be considered a marital asset in which she should share. Mrs. Clark also has a $500,000 slander claim against her husband.

Ford said he does not think Belinda Clark's claims will stand up in bankruptcy court.

- Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or 226-3422.

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