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Church may put assets on the line

By ADAM C. SMITH

©St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 1997


ST. PETERSBURG -- A planned housing development initiated by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons hit a setback this fall, when it was revealed that the developer's pledge for up to $750,000 from the National Baptist Convention USA was a forgery.

Now, the developers have found an alternative financing tool to help salvage their project: mortgage the church.

Deacons with Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, which abuts the property where the senior housing project is planned, are considering backing the project with $500,000 in church assets. United Bank of St. Petersburg has agreed to issue a letter of credit, backed by a $250,000 mortgage on the church property at 3455 26th Ave. S and by $250,000 in other church assets, probably certificates of deposit already at the bank.

"It's not a done deal . We're going to discuss that sometime this week," Leon Highsmith, chairman of Bethel's deacon board and a director of the non-profit development corporation, said Tuesday when asked about the church's financial participation.

However, another consultant working on the project, Martin Bakke, said the financing plan is complete.

Lyons, who is pastor at the church, initially was the driving force behind the proposed $5-million 84-bed assisted living facility, but the developers stress that he is no longer directly involved.

He has resigned from the non-profit development company, Bethel Adult Care Inc., whose board now includes three deacons from Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church. Lyons will be nowhere in sight next week when Bethel representatives are expected to ask City Council members for an extension on a city-imposed ground-breaking deadline.

But in the wake of criminal investigations into his financial dealings as head of the National Baptist Convention, Lyons continues to loom large over the St. Petersburg housing project.

"The politics of this totally escape me, other than the fact that the sponsor's (Bethel Metropolitan) leader got himself in hot water," Bakke said. "I asked him to extricate himself, which he did. But now it's like he's got leprosy. Nobody wants to go near him."

The project, called Bethel Village, mainly would be funded through tax-exempt bonds issued through the county and insured through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Even if the church does risk up to $500,000 for the Bethel Village project, it may be too little too late.

The developers have missed a Nov. 28 deadline for submitting its application for HUD support, and, more important, face a nearly impossible Dec. 20 deadline to start construction or face the prospect of the city foreclosing on the property. The city gave the developers $300,000 to buy the land, and Bakke said Bethel wants the city to give a six-month extension.

Not likely, Mayor David Fischer said Tuesday, the day before he was scheduled to meet with representatives of the project.

"My inclination is that the city wouldn't continue to support it," said Fischer, who last year approved the $300,000 loan to Bethel Adult Care Inc., despite concerns about the project's feasibility by his housing department. "With all the controversy over the various financing problems of Rev. Lyons, I don't see how they could continue."

HUD officials raised questions about whether Bethel Adult Care had enough of its own money budgeted to cover initial operating deficits as the facility starts up. To cover those early costs, Bethel's application to HUD for mortgage insurance included a letter from the general secretary of the National Baptist Convention, the Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper, pledging up to $750,000 from the convention for the Bethel Village project.

The letter was a fake. Cooper said he did not sign it and knew nothing about convention backing for Bethel Village, the Times reported in September. Lyons, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, had said through an attorney that he had not signed the letter either.

That letter has been withdrawn from the HUD application, and Bakke said it is to be replaced by the $500,000 letter of credit Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church has agreed to obtain from United Bank.


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