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Mr. Fitness exercising purchase of church

(ran Beach edition)

His Long Blond PonyTailness is coming to town. Fitness king Tony Little has worked out a contract to buy the former and long-vacant Calvary Baptist Church building.

If the city approves Little's conditional use application and site plan, he will move his corporate headquarters into the building at 2100 55th St. S beginning in late January. The building should be completely remodeled by March, he said. City staff is recommending approval of the plan.

Whatever happens on the old church property affects people's perceptions of Gulfport, said city manager Bob Lee. The land is located directly across Gulfport Boulevard from the Beach Boulevard entranceway to the city's downtown redevelopment area and art district. Having Tony Little on that real estate could complement the rest of the city.

"That is a very important site and it is very visible," Lee said.

The move will allow Little, 41, to consolidate his fitness empire, which he now operates with 23 employees out of several buildings at 70th Street and Central Avenue. The 25,274-square-foot church and office complex will give Little plenty of space.

He will be able to film videos and television shows on his own property as well as house his corporate offices. Little said he now shoots videos in Pennsylvania, Ohio and California. As of Friday, Little said he had not decided whether the One on One Trainer Fitness Center he owns at 7024 Central Ave. would relocate to the Gulfport offices.

Little said the building and its surrounding community is attractive to him.

"The sanctuary is a natural for me to shoot a lot of my television shows," he said. "I like Spanish Mediterranean. I like the park across the street. I like that it (Gulfport) is getting to be an artsy district and I hope to make that building a very impressive, classy, artsy place."

Several years ago, the Florida Osteopathic School of Medicine considered the building as the anchor of a medical school it planned to build in Gulfport. Those plans never materialized. In September, the Gulfport-based Florida Arts and Cultural Education Corporation was negotiating to buy the building under a lease-purchase agreement to open a theater arts complex. FACE owns and is renovating the Patron's Inn, a former hotel at 2937 Beach Blvd.

Little's offer to buy the building outright was the most attractive offer for the building's owner, real estate company owner R.W. Caldwell, said his son-in-law Poul Hornsleth, who is the president of Caldwell Realty. The company has listed the property for sale at $470,000. R.W. Caldwell bought the 1.66-acre site after a foreclosure for $175,000 in 1993. Neither Little or Hornsleth said they could discuss the price Little would pay for the building.

"We are thrilled that Mr. Little would consider locating his worldwide headquarters right here in the city of Gulfport and we hope it is the forerunner of many positive things," Hornsleth said.

Little plans to keep the exterior of the structure intact, including the cross, while remodeling the interior. The parking lot will be repaved and the property landscaped. Any exterior changes would be to enhance the Mediterranean motif, said David Gibson, a commercial real estate broker who handles Little's real estate investments.

Using a high-energy pitch, Little sells exercise equipment, workout videos, motivational tapes, vitamins and health supplements. He originally appeared as a national Home Shopping Network host. Now, he appears on the QVC television shopping network. His shows appear in 81 countries. He will be traveling to London next week and to Japan in December to shoot live shows promoting his products.

Whatever he touches seems to turn to gold.

Five hundred copies of his first exercise tape sold in four minutes. The first time he appeared on the Home Shopping Network, he sold 3,200 tapes in 15 minutes.

But about that ponytail?

"Everybody seems to be worried about it," he said. "I wish I could cut it."