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Bethel clears its land for church

Neighbors defeated Winn-Dixie and Wal-Mart plans for the site, which will be used for Bethel Community Baptist's school building, sanctuary and outdoor facilities.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rejected as a home for a Wal-Mart supercenter, the almost 24 acres of thicket on 54th Avenue S are being cleared for their original intention: a church, Christian school and supporting facilities.

Removal of trees and undergrowth, which began in earnest late last month, have left behind sections of gouged-out woods. Only "nuisance" trees have been removed so far, said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, which plans to build a $5-million complex.

Sykes said his church will have to get permission from St. Petersburg to remove protected species.

Native trees such as slash pines and cabbage palms, of which there are many on Bethel Community's property, fall into that category, said Julie Weston, the city's assistant director of development services.

"No permit is required to remove nuisance exotic trees like Brazilian pepper," she said. "In this particular case, since that property has not been developed before, there is also a need for a grubbing permit."

Such a permit, Weston explained, would allow Bethel Community to clear "understory" plants such as shrubs, saplings and other small vegetation.

Last year, in an effort to save money, the minister joined forces with two members of his congregation to begin clearing the land. This year, however, the church has hired professionals to do the job. Large mounds of brick-red mulch and yards of temporary black fencing have dominated the property in recent weeks.

Construction is unlikely to begin before late summer, Sykes said, adding that building plans will be submitted to the city this month.

The first phase of work is expected to cost about $1.6-million. Included will be a multipurpose building with classrooms and an area for a temporary 600-seat sanctuary. A separate school building will house grades K-5. A full-size baseball field, nature preserve and trails also are being planned. Construction is expected to take about nine months to a year, Sykes said.

No schedule has been set for the project's second phase, which will include a worship center for a congregation of 2,000, a chapel and a social services building. Finances will dictate the construction timetable of this phase, Bethel Community's pastor said.

"Basically, we want to keep from going into a lot of debt. We want to pay for one before we start on the other phase," Sykes said. "We are just estimating that the next phase will cost somewhere between $2.5- to $3-million."

A fundraising campaign has netted about $1.8-million, enough for the first part of the project, Sykes said. Members of the congregation have purchased mortgage bonds, that is, lending money to the church, in increments ranging from $250 to $10,000. The congregation also is contributing to the project through one-time or three-year financial pledges.

Sykes says he hopes that money for the second phase will come more easily.

"We hope that the Lord will bless us, that we will have some growth to make it unnecessary for us to borrow," he said. "For now, that is what we have to do to get started."

The property has seen its share of controversy. In 1995, the church bought the land for $500,000, and the following year announced plans to build a $7-million to $10-million campus.

In 1997, the church attempted to sell 10 acres to the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain. Neighbors objected and the project did not go through.

Resident outrage grew the following year when neighbors learned that Wal-Mart wanted to purchase the entire property for a 222,230-square-foot, 24-hour store. They successfully stifled a zoning change that Wal-Mart needed, killing the deal.

The 1,000-member congregation then decided to reprise its plans to build larger, more efficient facilities and leave its longtime home at 1045 16th St. S.

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