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From tiny downtown parking lot, St. Pete church blessed with millions

Christ United Methodist Church sees the sale as a path to stability and a way to enhance its role in the community.

ST. PETERSBURG — As millions of dollars in downtown development pushed west, Christ United Methodist Church, struggling financially, decided to capitalize on the voracious appetite for land.

The radical move to sell the congregation’s parking lot — once considered for an urban garden — has netted a multimillion-dollar fund to put the church on a path to stability. Church leaders hope to use the money for ministries, upgrade their sprawling campus to bring in operating revenue and invest for the future.

“We’re coming down from the mountain and the real hard work begins in pulling this together,” said the Rev. Jacqueline Jones–Smith in the wake of the euphoria that came from the sale. “We have to keep pushing. ... The sale was not the panacea. We don’t want to become victims of sudden wealth syndrome."

The congregation, at 467 First Ave. N, next to City Hall, celebrated the December sale two Sundays ago. The service also marked the culmination of the church’s 128th anniversary. Bishop Ken Carter, head of the Florida United Methodist Conference, accepted an invitation to attend. A bishop had not visited the church in years.

Bishop Ken Carter, head of the Florida United Methodist Conference, attended Christ United Methodist's celebration. [ Courtesy of Pat Evans, Christ United Methodist Church ]

The DeNunzio Group, based in Palm Harbor and Cambridge, Mass., paid $5.3 million for the church’s .65-acre parking lot at First Avenue N and Fifth Street. The firm’s president, Dustin DeNunzio, said he is pursuing “an aggressive permitting timeline” for a 24- to 28-story tower that will include ground-level retail, offices, a hotel, residential rental units and parking. The church will get up to 120 free parking spaces on Sundays and a few permanent spaces they can use all of the time.

Related: Another tower planned for downtown St. Petersburg

“Beyond that, we are committed to working with the church to ensure that they have the availability of parking for special events,” DeNunzio wrote via email. “Our goal is to help them become as successful as possible, and a lot of that will come from having adequate parking when they host special events.”

Until construction begins, the church will continue to use the lot on Sundays, he said.

The congregation at Christ United Methodist Church worships during a celebration service, Feb. 23, 2020. [ Courtesy of Pat Evans, Christ United Methodist Church ]

Jones–Smith arrived at Christ United Methodist in 2016 and quickly appointed a business development group as part of an urgent strategy to revive the church. The former lawyer, who served as chairman and commissioner of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission from 1989 to 1994, is the congregation’s first African-American pastor.

The business development group included Bob Stewart, a former Pinellas County Commissioner and St. Petersburg City Council member, and Jones-Smith’s husband, Joshua I. Smith, a businessman who served on boards that included FedEx Corp., Caterpillar, Allstate Insurance and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

McCabe United Methodist Church Dancers perform at Christ United Methodist Church, Feb. 23, 2020. [ Courtesy of Pat Evans, Christ United Methodist Church ]

“She put together the most unique ad hoc group you can imagine,” said another member of the group, the Rev. Tom Gregory, a CPA and pastor emeritus of Christ Church.

“My original charge was to look for ways that we could leverage our assets,” Jones-Smith said. “This was a group that could think outside the box.”

Related: Christ United Methodist selling its parking lot in hot downtown St. Petersburg market

The group suggested selling the parking lot, and it will work with others in the congregation to tackle challenges like upgrading technology and communications at the sprawling Christ Church campus and finding ways to enhance the building for the broader community. Jones-Smith envisions livestreaming, podcasts and online Bible studies as a way of reaching beyond the 1,200-seat sanctuary, where only about 175 to 180 people worship on Sundays. She also would like to see the sanctuary rented as a small performance venue, for meetings and conferences, and unused rooms on the church property transformed into offices.

The children of Christ United Methodist Church's Hortin Child Development Center sing during a Feb. Feb. 23 service. [ Courtesy of Pat Evans, Christ United Methodist Church ]

“The opportunity with the money is that when the present sanctuary was built in the late 50’s, the Americans with Disabilities Act had not been thought of," said Gregory, 82, a former chairman of the board of trustees at St. Petersburg College. "There were no such things as handicapped restrooms. Hopefully, it would be used to provide facilities to meet the needs of all folks.

Christ Church’s pastor said the congregation will use some of its windfall to create new ministries and expand and restore old ones such as its laundry ministry, which gives quarters and offers prayers and other assistance at coin laundries. Jones-Smith added that she also plans to restart the church’s after–school arts program, JAM, or Jesus, the Arts and Me. She would like her downtown congregation to work with the Rev. Jana Hall-Perkins of McCabe United Methodist Church, 2800 26th Ave. S, to take the program “to areas where it is needed.”

The parking lot for the Christ United Methodist Church is being sold to a developer, who plans a mixed-use building from 18 to 25 stories. [Times 2017]

McCabe and Christ Church have a “sister church" relationship and have been worshiping together once a year during Black History Month. This year, McCabe traveled downtown to Christ Church.

Christ Church is one of two Methodist congregations within blocks of each other in St. Petersburg’s downtown. Gregory, who was baptized at Christ Church and whose parents married there, said he had been retired for five years when the district superintendent asked him to lead the declining congregation. It was an unpaid position. He recalls welcoming Jones-Smith when she and her husband walked through the doors to worship while visiting from Maryland. He felt God sent them to Christ Church.

“I feel we are on our way,” Jones-Smith said this week. “God has really had a hand in this."

“It’s a new beginning rather than arriving,” her husband said.