The Ledger reports…
“Polk County’s largest church sanctuary has an appointment with the wrecking ball.
A pair of investors from Daytona Beach have purchased the former Without Walls Central property in North Lakeland, and they plan to demolish the massive sanctuary and convert a second building into an assisted-living facility.
Financial partners Doug Cook and George Anderson completed the purchase Friday, paying about $3.75 million for a 66-acre property bordering Lake Gibson.
The buyers will need a modification to the property’s current zoning before proceeding with their plans. That could come as early as June, Lakeland Chief of Zoning Teresa Maio said. Cook said the renovation of the former retirement home for union carpenters, a 115,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-style structure built in the 1920s, could take 12 to 14 months.
Cook said he and Anderson plan to build independent-living units for retirees in place of the church. He said they hope to begin demolition of the 9,600-seat church sanctuary in three to four weeks.
“It’s a fantastic piece of property,” Cook said of the site at 777 Carpenter’s Way. “The building we are keeping that was built in 1927, there are just not many of them left. Most have been torn down. … When we saw it, we knew we were going to purchase it.”
Cook said he met with Lakeland officials while preparing to buy the property. Maio said the parcel is zoned as a planned unit development with specific restrictions based on its past use as a church and school. Evangel Christian School occupied the former retirement home building until 2006.
“I think this is a good step in the redevelopment of the property,” Lakeland Planning Director Jim Studiale said. “It’s been a burden on that neighborhood, and that’s been unfortunate.”
Cook and Anderson created a new company, Lakeland Senior Living LLC, to hold the title for the proposed project. Cook said the pair have been real estate partners for about 15 years and have developed several ocean-front condominiums and hotels in the Daytona Beach area.
He said the partners have also developed some assisted-living facilities, including Southern Gardens in Lake Alfred.
The former Evangel Christian building has suffered from deterioration and vandalism in recent years. The developers plan a thorough renovation covering the roof, plumbing and electrical work, Cook said.
He predicted the assisted-living facility would hold about 150 residents and have 60 to 85 employees.
Joey Blakely, the Orlando broker who handled the property, said he received many inquiries. He said at least one potential buyer wanted to maintain the property as a church.
“We had multiple offers on the property,” Blakely said. “Ultimately, the seller chose what they felt like was the best offer for them — to close quickly for a price that was acceptable to them.”
No one could be reached at Evangelical Christian Credit Union, whose office was closed Monday for President’s Day.
Jim Waibel, who has lived near the church since the mid-1980s, said he is glad the property will no longer attract vagrants and vandals. He said he has noticed Lakeland police vehicles patrolling the site on a nightly basis.
“I think it’s going to be better for the neighborhood that it’s being used,” Waibel said.
Maio said the buyers will need approval from Lakeland’s planning and zoning board on modifying the current zoning. After that, the project would go before the City Commission for two readings. The soonest that process could be completed is mid-June, Maio said.
The developers will need to apply for a permit from the city’s building inspection division before razing the church sanctuary.
Maio said Lakeland Transportation Planner Chuck Barmby took part in meetings with the buyers. She said city officials were receptive to the developers’ plans for the site because an assisted-living facility would have relatively little impact on Carpenters Way, the two-lane road that leads to the site from U.S. 98 North.
The sanctuary, which opened in the 1985 as Carpenter’s Home Church, has been vacant for more than three years. Without Walls International, a Tampa-based Pentecostal church, bought the property in 2005 for $8 million.
Without Walls operated the Lakeland as a satellite, but attendance dwindled as two consecutive ministers defected to form new congregations, and the city disconnected electrical service in 2011 over unpaid bills.
Without Walls co-founder Randy White pledged to hire new pastors and revive the church, but that never happened. The mortgage holder, California-based Evangelical Christian Credit Union, began foreclosure proceedings against Without Walls, which declared bankruptcy last year.
The credit union reclaimed the property last July as the only bidder at a bankruptcy auction in Tampa and promptly put it up for sale.”