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Church may buy store building

The big, vacant Winn-Dixie building on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard has been a source of buzz in New Tampa for months. Homeowners in the surrounding suburbs wondered: Would it become a bookstore, a bowling alley, an ice rink?

Perhaps a church.

Lifepoint Church, a nontraditional congregation that features an energetic leader and a live band, is close to a deal to buy the 47,000-square-foot building, one of the hottest properties in New Tampa, its leaders say.

Lifepoint got its start five years ago when three people began meeting for church services at an apartment complex clubhouse. As its membership grew, they moved to a school, then later the local YMCA.

Pastor Brad White spoke with the property's owners about the church's plan to change lives and got a warm reception, church members say. They say the owners have put all other offers aside while they negotiate.

"Brad just kind of talked to them, worked his magic," said church member Bill Corcoran. "He said, "Look, you can save people, save souls, save people. Money doesn't matter. Touching people's lives is what matters.' "

White's response: "I don't know if I swayed them. I just shared my heart with them."

The property owner, part of a trust based in New Jersey, could not be reached for comment.

Robert Heller, president of Paragon Affiliates, which represents the trust, confirmed the two sides are talking. "We're in discussion at the moment," he said.

Nothing has been signed, but White said he expects to seal the deal "within the next couple of months." He wouldn't disclose a sale price, saying they were still in negotiations.

"Our church does not have the money in the bank account to pay for that building," he said. "We're just in the process of raising the money."

If the deal goes through, the former grocery store will be renovated to include state-of-the-art youth and children's facilities, a worship area and eventually a bookstore and a cafeteria, White said.

They hope to move in by October.

"It's just real exciting to be guided through a miracle like this," White said. "It's a big relief."

The grocery store opened in 1995 but later faced competition from three other supermarkets that opened within a mile. It closed along with 40 other Winn-Dixie stores after the grocery chain filed for bankruptcy in February 2005.

The vacant property was so sought-after, New Tampa residents even appealed to Mayor Pam Iorio during community meetings to do what she could to bring in a bowling alley there. Rumors swirled for months that Lightning player Dave Andreychuk was interested in opening an ice hockey rink.

The big building would be a far cry from the church's current home at the YMCA in Tampa Palms. About 50 members used to meet in a room at the Y. With about 1,500 people who attend at least once a month, they expanded to the basketball court, which was cause for much celebration.

It has been a complete church on wheels, with collapsible stages, chairs and tables. Setting up was a three-hour process, and it cost $70,000 for all the equipment, White said.

Leaders searched for a permanent home, but were discouraged by the soaring price of property in New Tampa.

They began considering a move to more affordable Pasco County. The property, which sits on busy Bruce B. Downs and Cross Creek Boulevard, comes with an ample-sized parking lot.

Corcoran, the church member, is confident White can make the deal happen.

"Just the traffic going by and seeing it, the sheer visibility is fantastic," Corcoran said. "When churches have a building, their attendance can easily double."

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