NEW PORT RICHEY — Commuters on Little Road can see it as soon as they pass the veterans clinic: an imposing white cross that dominates the skyline above the trees.
Its base begins on land owned by Gulf Coast Worship Center, putting to rest any arguments about separation of church and state.
"It's the best looking cross I've ever seen," said the Rev. David Arnold, Gulf Coast's pastor. "You can see it from half a mile away. We put a big spotlight on it."
The cross actually hides a cell phone tower. T-Mobile, the nation's fourth-largest wireless company, recently had the tower put up after working out a lease deal with the church.
"They called many, many months ago," said Arnold.
He said he wasn't interested in having a cell tower on church land, but said he wouldn't mind a cross. The company pays $1,200 a month to lease the property. Arnold says the church uses it to supplement mission work.
So Vertex Development, a Tampa company that builds towers for wireless companies, went to work.
The result: a 160-foot tall cross, called a "monocross" by those in the wireless industry because it includes antennas in a single pole.
"Our speciality is working with communities on not being obtrusive," said Amy Cochran, a real estate manager for Vertex. "People want their cell phones to work, and you have to have a cell tower to do that, but we're sort of like Wal-Mart; people aren't crazy to see us sometimes."
The company has put up other crosses as well as towers disguised as flag poles and some that are just plain monopoles.
"People don't want to hear chains banging against the pole," Cochran said.
The company put up a tower disguised as a tree near the Seven Oaks Development at Sandy Lane off State Road 54, about 3 miles west of Interstate 75.
Is that a cactus?
Camouflaging cell towers has become so necessary as the networks expand into populated areas that entire businesses are devoted to it.
Stealth Concealment Solutions, based in South Carolina, specializes in hiding cell towers across the nation.
In addition to the usual trees, flags and crosses, the company has disguised towers as cactuses and once as an osprey nest, spokeswoman Annabelle Sheen said.
Arnold's congregation is pleased with the cross, which it has incorporated into the church's identity to the point that they are having a dedication service and picnic for it and next month.
"This is a real plus for us," he said. "We've had people actually come to church here because they saw the cross."
The church has a history of embracing rather than resisting change.
Formerly called Evangel Assembly of God with a congregation comprising mainly retirees, it changed its name and retooled its worship style to contemporary to reach a younger generation. The change transformed a once dying church to one that boasts of 170 to 200 members.
Arnold is glad his church can help people talk with each other. He hopes the cross will encourage people to pursue another form of communication, one that requires no phone, only a sincere heart.
"I want this to be a real testimony," Arnold said. "I want people driving by, whether it's 2:30 in the afternoon or 3 o'clock in the morning, to see the cross and get the message that "There's hope. I can make it. I can go on.'"
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.