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Buyers shun Living Water property

Church leaders had turned down a bid of $3.1-million in hopes of a higher price. But the next auction drew no bids.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published April 30, 2004

TAMPA - After a bankruptcy auction two months ago, the Living Water Church of Tampa elected to throw out a $3.1-million bid on its property on Interstate 4 and seek new bids.

There was renewed interest in the I-4 corridor, church officials said, and the 16-acre property might fetch much more at a second auction.

The decision backfired. At the second auction earlier this month, not one bid came in.

Even the bidder who offered the $3.1-million in March stayed away. That bid had come from the Family Harvest Church, a wealthy Tinley Park, Ill., group which has been trying to breathe new life into the Living Water Church since last summer.

"Everybody backed out," said Buddy Ford, Living Water's bankruptcy attorney. "The Family Harvest Church cited bad publicity. They said if they paid $10-million for the property, it would still be under a cloud of suspicion."

Doug Boettcher, chief financial officer for the Family Harvest Church, said Thursday that his group would continue to provide assistance to the Tampa church until it was sold or could be relocated, but would no longer seek to buy the Living Water property.

"Every impression left in the media has been that we were going to steal the building," said Boettcher. "We came for the people and not the real estate. Now, we will stay with the people and walk away from the real estate."

Ford said the church will now try to sell the property through a broker. But a broker's commission of 8 percent will drastically reduce proceeds - if a buyer can be found.

"If it can't sell, it may end up in foreclosure," Ford said. "Then everybody will lose, including the parishioners."

Founded in 1988 by Ron and Belinda Clark, the nondenominational Living Water Church grew to almost 2,000 members before the Clarks became tangled in a rancorous divorce, and three quarters of the church's membership defected.

Ronald Clark claimed his wife was adulterous, mentally ill, fascinated by pornography and had stolen church mail filled with Easter donations.

An investigation by postal officials found that no church mail had ever been forwarded to Belinda Clark. She said her husband had slandered her, physically abused her and had devised a secret plan to sell the church and have the proceeds funneled to him at an overseas mission.

Belinda Clark asserted in court papers that the Living Water Church was Ronald Clark's alter ego, and that it ought to be considered a marital asset whose proceeds should be shared with her.

Ronald Clark resigned as pastor in June and was immediately hired by Family Harvest, a church with $9.67-million in assets whose leader, Robert V. Thompson, was a benefactor of Living Water and the Clark family.

After hiring Clark, Family Harvest took over operation of the Tampa church, providing pastoral services, meeting the church payroll and paying the mortgage.

On Oct. 1, with a $2.8-million mortgage and just $60 in its checking account, the Living Water Church sought protection from creditors in bankruptcy court. A $3.5-million appraisal on the church property suggested an auction might bring in enough cash to pay creditors and begin construction of a new church in Tampa's suburbs.

But bidders who expressed interest in March, including the Seminole Tribe of Florida and boat retailer MarineMax, shied away at the second auction. Ford said MarineMax was still assessing the property, while the Seminoles said a freeze had been placed on tribal acquisitions.

Ford discounted it, but the only real new publicity concerning the church since the first auction was a March 12 St. Petersburg Times story disclosing that Ronald Clark was the subject of an IRS criminal investigation. He has denied violating any IRS rules.

"The bad thing is the negative publicity that continues to be associated with the property," Ford said. "I had a Pinellas manufacturing company that was interested but then started worrying that tax liens might show up on the property, even though that couldn't happen."

The church has remained current on its mortgage payments to the Silicon Valley Bank, Ford said, but now a new expense has cropped up. Officials have discovered mold in the church building and are investigating what it will cost to remedy that problem.

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

[Last modified April 30, 2004, 01:05:39]


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