Construction halts as church raises money
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- A financial shortfall has temporarily halted construction on the first phase of Bethel Community Baptist Church's planned $5-million campus in Lakewood on 54th Avenue S.
One of the city's largest congregations, Bethel Community is in the middle of building a $1.4-million multipurpose facility that includes a temporary 600-seat sanctuary -- the first part of a major construction plan -- but has stopped the project for a few weeks to raise additional money, the Rev. Manuel Sykes said.
From the outside, the prefabricated building looks complete. But much interior work remains.
"We're now $350,000 from completion and we are now counting up and now trying to put aside the money," Sykes said Tuesday.
The congregation is funding the project with mortgage bonds. Members are purchasing the bonds, in increments ranging from $250 to $10,000, and making onetime or three-year pledges to help finance the project.
Sykes said construction of the 14,400-square-foot building, near 31st Street and 54th Avenue S, should resume in August and be complete by the end of October. The new campus, which is being built on about 24 acres of former woods, is expected eventually to include a 2,000-seat church, Christian school, full-size baseball field, nature preserve and trails.
Emphasizing that his church wants to minimize its debt, Sykes said no schedule has been set for future construction. He added that the church will take over management of the project to curtail costs.
In 1999, in an effort to save money, the pastor and two members of his congregation took on the task of clearing the 54th Avenue property. The next year, professionals were hired to complete the job. Construction began in the fall of 2000.
Meanwhile, Bethel Community's current facility, at 1045 16th St. S, has been on the market for the past year. The listing price for the sanctuary, fellowship hall and educational wing on 3 acres near Tropicana Field is $1.5-million.
The church also is considering the option of keeping the property and continuing to allow it to be used by the city's Business Development Center and for community programs such as the after-school tutorials run by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.
Over the years, Bethel Community, one of the city's largest predominantly black churches, has encountered a number of obstacles in its quest for a new campus.
"Even people within my own congregation, who were close to me, have left. This has been about frustration. It has been about loss," Sykes said.
"It has been about a journey of faith that has taken more than a rib from me."
Over the years, the church has considered many options for the property: building a church there, selling the land to buy a church elsewhere or a combination of both.
Attempts to raise money by selling parcels or even the entire property it purchased for about $500,000 in 1995 have met with strong neighborhood opposition.
In 1997, when the church tried to sell 10 acres of the property to the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain, the Lakewood Civic Association objected and the plan failed. The next year, members of the association again objected when they learned that Wal-Mart wanted to purchase the entire property for a 222,230-square-foot, 24-hour store. The association won. Had the 1,000-member congregation prevailed, it had considered buying the former First Congregational United Church of Christ at Fourth Street and Third Avenue N for its new home.
More recently, the civic association objected to the church's request for street, alley and easement vacations on the interior of the church's property. However, the Environmental Development Commission granted Bethel Community's request.
God gave him the vision to build a new church, Sykes said this week.
"It has been a journey that has shown me how living by faith, you don't always understand how things are going to come out," he said.
"But oftentimes, people misunderstand you, because they don't understand the nature of how God communicates the vision to a leader and that leader can't always tell you exactly how that (vision) is going to happen. God says, move this way, and you follow his voice. As the old folks say, I'm yet holding on."
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