First Baptist Church of Leesburg is moving into the development business, planning to develop some 200 acres of dairy land in Fruitland Park that it inherited from the trust of a former member, the church's executive pastor told GrowthSpotter.
The church's first order of business is planning a new church building on 16 to 18 acres at the top of a hill on the land, said Art Ayris of First Baptist. The new church will not replace First Baptist's existing church building in downtown Leesburg, but rather become home to a second congregation that has been growing in The Villages.
The new sanctuary is expected to have between 750 and 1,000 seats or, perhaps, even more, Ayris said. Construction is expected to start sometime in 2016.
"That is our plan, we are working with the City of Fruitland Park," he said.
The church construction plans are coming from Nashville-based architects Visioneering Studios. There isn't a price tag for the new church yet other than "a few million," Ayris said.
The church plans to raise most of the money necessary for construction from its members over a three-year period, and will fill any remaining financing gap with a short-term bank loan, he said.
First Baptist's second order of business is to find a simpatico partner to develop the rest of the land for commercial uses.
"We have somebody we are in talks with," said Ayris. "What we were looking for was somebody who would be a good partner for us, that their development would play well with the church. Obviously no Hooters up there."
Ayris said he could not reveal the name of the potential developer partner the church is currently negotiating with.
The portion of the land the new church will be built on will remain tax exempt, while the remainder that is developed may go on the local tax roll, if it is sold to a for-profit entity, he said.
He said First Baptist is planning to build the church first and develop the front portion of the property in conjunction, since it has less development issues than the back portion, which abuts The Villages.
First Baptist Church of Leesburg, a huge powerhouse congregation that is engaged in everything from feeding the poor to housing the homeless, started a new congregation in The Villages in rented spaces such as Colony Cottage and the American Legion.
"The Villages has been significant for us," said Ayris. "The Villages, frankly, has been a wonderful partner, very good neighbors."
Despite the temporary locations, the congregation has been growing fast, said Ayris. There were 251 congregants last Sunday in The Villages and he expects it will climb to as many as 500 by year's end.