Christ United Methodist Church, whose illuminated cross rises next to City Hall, is poised to capitalize on downtown’s development boom.
It has put its parking lot up for sale. The church, which has embarked on an ambitious rebirth strategy following the arrival of a new pastor 17 months ago, says the property at First Avenue N and Fifth Street is drawing widespread interest.
Jon Wittner, managing director for KW Commercial Tampa Bay, which has the listing, said nearby properties are selling for $6 million to $9 million an acre.
"I think that we will fall somewhere in there," he said of the prime 0.65 acre-lot.
Putting a slice of its property on the market has been a crucial step for Christ Church, which is how it is known. One of two Methodist congregations within blocks, the church has struggled in recent years. Its 1,000-seat sanctuary welcomes only a few hundred for Sunday worship and the congregation, which had not been able to afford a full-time pastor, was forced to dip into its endowment. But members of the more than century-old church have resisted talk of closure, convinced that it has much to offer in a burgeoning downtown.
That certainty has been bolstered with the arrival of the Rev. Jacqueline Jones-Smith, who was hired in July 2016. Visiting from Maryland, the former lawyer and chairman and commissioner of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission was recruited on the spot. She is the church’s first African-American pastor.
To combat Christ Church’s challenges, Jones-Smith marshaled the expertise of her husband, Joshua I. Smith, a businessman who served on such boards as FedEx Corp., Caterpillar, Allstate Insurance and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He now chairs the church’s new business development group.
"I knew what I needed was thinking out of the box," Jones-Smith said of the business group she conceived. "I needed a group that could not only create a box, but could build a box."
"Originally, we talked about the underutilized facility of the church itself," said Bob Stewart, a former Pinellas County Commissioner and St. Petersburg City Council member.
"We were talking about bringing in entrepreneurial operations and nonprofits, but quickly, we started to focus on the 28,000 square feet across the street and saw that as a tremendous source for the church to become financially viable and offer more programs."
Smith, who owned his own company and was chairman of the U.S. Commission on Minority Business Development under President George H.W. Bush, said he was astonished to learn that the congregation had considered establishing an urban garden on the choice property.
"They are right in downtown St. Petersburg. And it’s not that I don’t think that urban gardens serve a purpose," he said. "The more I looked into it, the more I realized that it’s a very valuable piece of property."
Others tapped for the business group were Mark Buehrle, a retired bank executive, Jim Norred, with more than 35 years of experience in sales management, corporate sales training and marketing, and the Rev. Tom Gregory, a CPA and pastor emeritus.
The goal "is to leverage our assets so we can make some investments into ministries," Jones-Smith said.
Her plans include introducing midweek meditation in the church’s Mediterranean-style courtyard aimed at drawing office workers and other potential worshipers. Jones-Smith said she also wants to revive and expand an after-school arts program called JAM, or Jesus, the Arts and Me.
She has already boosted the church’s laundry ministry. Once a month, volunteers visit coin laundries to offer rolls of quarters, soap, dryer sheets, prayers and a low-key invitation to Christ Church.
Rena Bailey was doing four loads of laundry at the 24-hour, open-air Quick Way Laundry at 3013 Lown St. N, when Doug O’Dowd, his wife, Cecelia Messina, and John Thigpen-Krapps, the church’s director of youth programs, approached her recently.
"Oh, my God! God is good," Bailey said of the quarters they dispensed. A resident aide and med-tech, she said she is able to do laundry every two weeks, when she gets paid.
"It’s not just the laundry," said O’Dowd, who makes it a point to buy laundry baskets to distribute. "It’s about knowing that someone cares about them."
That day, Messina’s Spanish and Thigpen-Krapps’ packages of bubbles and candy canes were welcomed by children at the Coin Laundry at 3754 28th St. N.
The quarters were "a blessing," said Sharieka Akins, 35, who has been caring for her sister’s four young daughters since September. "I was about to cry."
For James Gamble, 24, a cook at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront, Christ Church members brought a much-needed relief.
"I was coming with my last $30 to wash my daughter’s and my fiancee’s clothes," he said. "I’m still speechless. I’m very thankful for it."
The church’s effort to expand its reach into the broader community has led it to join the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Jones-Smith and her husband also visited City Hall to share Christ Church’s plans to sell its parking lot.
The city is "just terribly impressed with the way the church leadership has gone about this," said development administrator Alan DeLisle. "We’re eager to understand what the vision is going to be for that site."
Ideas being proffered include condos, apartments, affordable housing and mixed-use development with a restaurant on the ground floor, Wittner said. "It’s not the deepest site, but deep enough to still do a great project," he said of the 280-by-100-foot property, which he described as offering high density zoning that would permit a building as tall as 450 feet.
"There is a lot of demand for quality project sites," he said. "This one is in the heart of the most beautiful premodern architecture of the city. We feel it is a real special location."
Offers will be accepted until Jan. 15, he said.
Any deal would include allowing ongoing parking for the church, which also wants to lease some of its 50,000 square feet of building space.
"We’re thinking that we have anywhere of 15,000 square feet we can lease out to different parties and we feel if we get a return on the assets we already have and the property, the church could have a sound financial future," Smith said.
"I just believe they’re being very cutting edge and they are getting ahead of the curve," DeLisle said. "And it’s where they need to be in this day and age."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.