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Grand vision and realities collide

After a series of snags, a pastor finally begins a $5-million complex next to Lakewood, only to see it stall again. He remains positive.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 28, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Even Moses didn't have an easy time carrying out God's directives, so why should a St. Petersburg preacher who believes he has received divine instructions to create a multimillion-dollar complex for his flock?

For the Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church, his quest to transform his vision into reality has been more like a trek across an endless desert.

It began in 1995, when in seemingly miraculous fashion, Sykes learned that a rare 30 acres of woods was available within city limits, in the Lakewood area on 54th Avenue S. His church snagged the property for a mere $500,000.

Since then, though, unable to share Sykes' vision, seven of his associate ministers -- according to Baptist tradition, not necessarily ordained -- have left the church, as have deacons and others in his congregation.

Attempts to raise money for the ambitious project, by selling off bits of the property for retail development, have been vehemently opposed by residents near the acreage.

More recently, financial difficulties have forced work on the first phase of the $5-million complex to a temporary halt.

Sykes, 44, is undaunted.

"It is not so much about building a church but following a vision. It originates with God and I have to believe that he is going to perform it," the minister said during an interview this week.

"Most of the times, a vision is more than you have the ability to accomplish at the time."

Initial estimates for the cost of the complex, which would eventually include a 2,000-seat sanctuary, Christian school, full-size baseball field, nature preserve and trails, were "overwhelming," Sykes said.

But even as church members contemplated what appeared to be an insurmountable expense, it seemed God was answering their prayers. Bethel Community got two offers for the property.

The first, in 1997, came from Winn-Dixie, which wanted to buy 10 acres for a store. Neighbors in the Lakewood Estates subdivision opposed the plan.

The second and most desirable offer came from Wal-Mart, which wanted to purchase most of the property for a 222,230-square-foot, 24-hour store. Neighbors again objected, and a contentious disagreement erupted between those in favor of the development and others firmly opposed for reasons ranging from environmental concerns to increased crime. The project died and the financial windfall Bethel Community had hoped would help finance a new home elsewhere -- perhaps in the historic former First Congregational United Church of Christ, at Fourth Street and Third Avenue N -- was not to be.

"How do we proceed?" Sykes said of his thoughts at the time.

"I began praying and searching for ways."

In the midst of that struggle, Sykes said, he had to deal with being portrayed as a fiend by the Lakewood community.

"You wind up being accused of being things that you're not. I'm public enemy No. 1. I'm trying to wheel and deal (the neighboring) community into the hands of the corporate giants," he said.

His church, one of the largest black congregations in St. Petersburg, once headed by civil rights activist Enoch Davis, then decided to reprise its original plan to build its new campus on the extensive property at 31st Street and 54th Avenue S.

To save money, Sykes and two members of his church worked to clear the land. Construction began last fall and the first building, a prefabricated metal structure, soon rose on the property. A few weeks ago, however, Sykes halted construction on the $1.4-million, 14,400-square-foot, multipurpose facility that has been designed to house a temporary 600-seat sanctuary.

Sykes said Bethel Community needs to raise about $350,000 to complete the job, which will be finished under his supervision. Work should resume in August, he said, and be complete in time for the celebration of Bethel Community's 78th anniversary at the end of October.

Shawn Barrett, sales and marketing director for United Church Structures in Davison, Mich., said congregations can avoid financial pitfalls during construction.

"I think they need, early on, to know how much money they have or need to raise. I have yet to talk to a church where money is no object," Ms. Barrett said.

"Our company always suggests that the builder and architect work together from the beginning."

Bethel Community is funding its project with mortgage bonds. Members are being asked to purchase the bonds, in increments ranging from $250 to $10,000, and to make onetime or three-year financial pledges.

John Rankins of Midwest Church Construction, a Perrysburg, Ohio, company, said congregations need to plan.

"First and foremost, make sure you really plot out your vision," Rankins said. "Churches really need to think through and plan and plan and plan some more. The pastor needs to sell his vision to the congregation."

Sykes has been able to do so only in part.

"I lost at least seven ministers and their families. I've lost, over a period of time, about six of my senior deacons," he said.

"What I have discovered here in St. Petersburg is that the churches are so competitive in the black community that many of the people now come to you using membership as leverage. . . . A lot of them are tithe payers, faithful, so they want you to know they are big givers. And what happens is that they hope that while you're trying to keep your finances stable, especially when you're building, that you would fear the loss of income to the extent that you will be held captive to their demands. That doesn't work with me. Those people are the ones that really show you that God is your supplier."

As he stood in front of the unfinished multipurpose building Wednesday, Sykes conceded that he has no idea when his 2,000-seat sanctuary and other facilities will rise on the sandy property that borders Lakewood.

"I think that God will be able to do it," he said.

"He will do it, even if he only starts it with me. It will be finished."

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