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Churches, hotels, schools reap a wireless windfall

Palm Lake Christian will get $1,500 a month for allowing the pole.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Palm Lake Christian will get $1,500 a month for allowing the pole.

Across the country, churches, schools, hotels, condominiums and others are collecting thousands of dollars for giving cell towers and cleverly camouflaged rooftop antennas a home on their property.

Wireless antennas nestle on the exterior of the historic Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa, in a flagpole topped with a cross at First Church of the Nazarene in Clearwater, a faux pine tree on County Road in Palm Harbor and architectural elements atop Disney's Celebration Hotel in Orlando.

In St. Petersburg, one of the newest cell towers is at Palm Lake Christian Church, where a unipole — similar to a flagpole, but without a flag — stands 150 feet tall.

Gene Downs, chairman of the church's cell tower committee, said the congregation didn't want a cell tower on its property at first, but changed its mind to enable the neighborhood to get reliable cell phone coverage, particularly in emergencies.

"We were interested in trying to fill a need,'' Downs said.

"We were also interested in the money aspect. Incomewise to the church, it's worth half a million dollars, and that's nothing to sneeze at.''

He said the congregation signed a 22-year lease with a Sarasota cell tower company and will get $1,500 a month for the 75-by-50-foot plot on the side of a lake near Northwest Elementary School.

According to Ridan Industries II, a Tampa cell tower company, property owners stand to make $500 to $2,500 a month in such transactions.

Ridan president Kevin Barile estimates that there are 210 cell towers in Pinellas County, about 50 of which are in St. Petersburg. Those numbers reflect only standalone towers and do not include antennas atop existing structures, he said.

The numerous cell sites are evidence of the exploding demand for wireless communications technology, those in the industry say.

"There is a need for the capacity. We have one at Tropicana Field,'' said Chuck Hamby of Verizon Wireless, adding that the ballfield antenna works with other sites to ensure service on nearby highways and in surrounding neighborhoods.

"Today's wireless customers aren't just making voice calls; they're surfing the wireless Web, taking and sharing photos, watching videos, listening to music, and checking e-mail,'' said AT&T spokeswoman Kelly Layne Starling in an e-mail.

"People are more mobile now than ever before, and they want an unconstrained ability to reach the people, information and entertainment they care about, and to do it all from the palm of their hand, from wherever they are.''

Additionally, said Kristin Wallace, public relations manager for Sprint: "Having sites up and running … is a great safety tool for customers. It gives them the ability to call 911. And you see more and more people using their wireless as their only phone.''

Property owners eager to cash in on the mobile communications phenomenon aren't shy about trying to entice cell phone companies.

"I know from personal experience that we do get calls,'' said Scott Morris of Alltel Wireless.

Barile said his firm searches for sites based on cell companies' needs. The first choice is a spot in a commercial or industrial area, but to give consumers "kitchen coverage,'' he said his company finds itself turning more often to nontraditional locations like churches and schools.

Lakeview Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg's Midtown has had a cell tower for about four years, the Rev. Todd W. Sutton said.

"I think it's worked out well,'' he said, adding that money from the lease helps his small congregation keep up its property and goes toward the mission of the church.

Neighbors initially objected to the church's agreement to put a cell tower on its property, but relented because money from the lease would go to outreach projects in the community.

All cell site plans don't proceed as easily. Though consumers want reliable service, many balk at a cell tower in their neighborhood. Others say towers come with health risks.

Barile, whose company is affiliated with Florida Tower Partners, which is constructing the tower at Palm Lake Christian, said initial opposition to the cell site waned. T-Mobile and MetroPCS will be the first companies to lease space on the tower, he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Churches, hotels, schools reap a wireless windfall 09/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 1:11pm]
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