TAMPA — Without Walls International Church is close to selling its huge Without Walls Central church in Lakeland and settling into its existing Tampa location debt-free, pastor Randy White said Thursday.
Without Walls could solve its crowding problems in Tampa by building a parking garage, he said.
As for the congregation in Lakeland, White said, "They'll be very excited."
White said Without Walls has been planning for a year to put both locations on the market, where they are listed for $30-million each. He said the Tampa property has been appraised at almost $30-million and the Lakeland site at $27-million. Without Walls bought the Lakeland church in 2005 for $15-million.
"Both of the properties are located in a location where there's just tremendous growth," he said.
With about 20,000 members, Without Walls is the Tampa Bay area's largest church. But it encountered a rocky period last year after White and his wife, Paula, divorced and a U.S. Senate committee asked for detailed reports on the church's finances. Without Walls hasn't complied.
Randy White said plans to market the church properties predate those events. He said the plans were inspired by the opportunity to transform real estate appreciation into stepped-up charity.
"We want to get to a place where we're focusing on the indigent with more of our resources," White said.
But there are practical considerations, too. Major developments are in the works to the east and west of Without Walls' Tampa property, at 2511 N Grady Ave., between Raymond James Stadium and the International Plaza mall.
White said Without Walls has several scenarios stemming from different outcomes of property sales, but was leaning "90 percent" toward one that involved keeping the Tampa site and selling the Lakeland one.
"The buyer is very close to purchasing that now," White said.
He said that change would not evict the 1,500-member Lakeland congregation. He declined to elaborate, saying "there are other congregations involved" and they should hear the news from their leaders.
Without Walls properties are being marketed by Matt Messier, an Orlando agent for CNL Real Estate Services. Messier said he sells church properties only, and has handled 1,500 sales.
Messier said both Without Walls campuses are in a common situation that triggers church sales: Property values have boomed as growth has converged around the churches, creating opportunities for them to relocate while obtaining new cash for expanded ministries.
"If the properties sell, they'll take the proceeds and hopefully build a more focused and functional church," Messier said.
White said both sites had generated offers, including a $26-million bid for the Tampa church.
"We've had no less than six contracts offered on the Tampa property, and we've had no less than three contracts offered on the Lakeland property in the last six weeks," he said.
White sought to dispel any notions that the dual sale offers signaled that he was leaving Tampa after a tumultuous year.
"I'm not running," he said. "I'm not leaving. I'm not forsaking our people."
White estimated that attendance at his Tampa services has dropped 20 percent in the last year. He said church offerings also are down, but by less than 20 percent, which he attributes to a slowing economy. Membership has held steady.
White would like to retire the property's $12-million mortgage, which comes due in January. But he said Without Walls could extend it for five years.
"We have a lot of money in the bank," White said.
If Without Walls were to build a church in Tampa, it would seat 5,000 to 7,000 worshipers in a single Sunday service, he said.
Given the economic downturn, Without Walls is planning a major aid program for Tampa's needy, partnering with "a very, very large food distributor."
"It will really impact this community with furniture, food, clothing and any of a number of nonperishible items," White said.
Bill Coats can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5309.