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Faith Outreach Center buys historic property for Christian retreat in Odessa

ODESSA — The first time Pastor George Walters and his wife, Mickey, drove by the dilapidated structure on the corner of Race Track Road and Gunn Highway, they were enamored with its serene surroundings.

Their glances as they passed the lot over the years turned into talk about how fantastic the property would be if it served as the site of a recreational spot for Christians — if only it were for sale.

Last month, 20 years after they first laid eyes on the land, their dream took a leap closer to reality.

Their church, Faith Outreach Center, won the old building and the 2.5 acres that it sits on at a public auction.

The Walterses didn't know at the time of the auction, but the crumbling structure, which sits on Lake Raleigh, was part of a complex that served as a prime vacation spot for African-Americans across Central Florida during the segregated 1960s.

The former owners of what became known as the Walker Motel are long deceased. They had always wanted to make use of the beauty of the lake and for the land to serve the community.

It was a vision that aligns so closely with the Walterses' plans, they believe the acquisition was nothing short of divine intervention.

In fact, the church almost didn't win the May 15 auction. They were the third-highest bidder at $250,000, Mickey Walters said. However, the winning bidder backed out and the second highest bidder could not be located.

"It was just incredible," George Walters said. "I feel very blessed God would open up the door to allow this to happen."

At the auction, the Walterses met a few descendants of James and Mabel Walker, the original owners of the Walker Motel.

The family had put the land up for public auction after plans to build an events center in 2007 fell apart. Of 19 surviving children and grandchildren, six members wanted to keep the legacy alive and rebuild. The others wanted to sell, said Linda Arenas, one of James and Mabel's daughters.

So it was fitting that the new owners wanted to build their own retreat for the public, something that delighted the Walker family.

"(My parents) would love it," Arenas said of the church's plans. "That's one thing they wanted, was for it to serve as a Christian retreat."

For two decades, the Walker Motel was the only place in the area where African-Americans could go to picnic, party and, once the motel was built in 1963, stay overnight.

African-Americans from around Central Florida congregated there for countless social gatherings during the '50s and '60s.

It was the destination for everything from prom night parties and weddings to birthdays and church outings. It also was the spot where hundreds of families would converge to celebrate Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

In 1972, James Walker, 59 at the time, was shot and killed during a robbery. Family members say he was alone in the motel office when several men walked in. One of them demanded money from the cash box and Walker, who always wore a gun, tried to resist. Shots were fired. Walker was killed.

That moment altered the course of the Walker Motel's future, his children said.

The motel eventually shut down.

With weeds waist high, the church and its congregants are beginning the process of transforming the property. They hope to restore whatever they can of the 18-room motel.

Once open, perhaps in a year, Faith Outreach Retreat Center will welcome Christian groups for meetings, picnics, fishing, swimming and a variety of outdoor activities.

"The Lord is good," Arenas said. "He works things out in all things."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Faith Outreach Center buys historic property for Christian retreat in Odessa 06/21/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 4:30am]
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