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Miami Beach church seeks financial salvation in land deal

In dire financial straits, the church that has stood on the corner of Lincoln Road and Drexel Avenue for almost a century is considering leasing out a chunk of its historic property for $100 million.

Early plans call for Tristar Capital to build a multistory building on the Miami Beach Community Church’s small courtyard fronting the Lincoln Road Mall.

As a historic property in a historic district, it could be difficult to get city approval for development on the site. As a congregational church, its members also have to approve the deal.

Miami Beach Community Church has served the city’s diverse population through Lincoln Road’s spiral into seediness in the 1980s, and today’s revival into an international tourism destination of upscale shopping and dining.

Surrounded by decadence and excess, now it’s the small white sanctuary that is in need of a turnaround, said Senior Pastor Harold Thompson. Running a deficit of about $30,000 a month, the church faces a monumental decision: whether to lease its courtyard, or face possible the possible closure of Miami Beach’s oldest house of worship.

“We sat down and did some difficult financial analysis, and realized that the future of this church could be measured in months and not years,” Thompson said. “So we had to move forward with bold thinking.”

The church’s board of directors has mulled offers for about six months, Thompson said. Now that the board has picked Tristar’s plan, the congregation will be asked to vote after services this Sunday on whether to accept a 50 year lease of church property.

Plenty of speculators have knocked on the church’s doors over the years. This time, church leadership sees leasing its land as the only way out of a crushing financial situation. Down to about 170 members, Community Church has tried growing its membership and even leasing out some of its office space to help close the its budget gap. But it hasn’t proven to be enough.

The cash infusion from a multimillion dollar lease would not only give the church new life, but allow it to offer more services that will hopefully help grow its membership. Already, the church feeds the homeless four days a week and hosts recovery meetings in a small chapel that had been mostly dormant before Thompson took over as senior pastor about a year ago. He is only the fourth pastor to lead the church in all its history.

“The singular thing that has emerged from this process is that Miami Beach Community Church needs to be here in South Beach. We need to be a strong and vibrant ministries. We need to continue to be a beacon of light for people who are seeking a church home here in Miami Beach,” Thompson said. “And so, in many ways the development opportunity ensures that we’ll continue to be possible, because without something this bold, I don’t know that our future would be guaranteed.”

Designed by Walter DeGarmo, Florida’s first registered architect, the church is built in a revival style, generally considered Spanish Churrigueresque, said Jeff Donnelly, a member of the Miami Design Preservation League and co-author of the book Miami Architecture.

“It’s a one-of a kind sort of place in Miami Beach,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly said the church land was deeded by Carl Fisher himself, the man credited with building up Miami Beach. He is said to have built the church after his wife, Jane, complained there was no house of worship in the city.

“And the story goes that, he said, ‘OK, we’ll have a church here.’ And then when the church was built, he is supposed to have said, ‘Here’s your g-----m church.’ 

In a city that credits historic preservation as the reason for its international tourism, significantly changing the architecture along Lincoln Road may prove difficult.

Any new construction would require approval by the city’s Historic Preservation Board, according to the city’s design and preservation manager Thomas Mooney.

“Given the historic significance of the site, and the actual open space, any type of new construction project would certainly be challenging,” Mooney wrote in an email to the Miami Herald.

Pastor Thompson said the congregation realizes the sensitivity of the site. He said the site’s potential developers plan on preserving important views of the church, and will provide green space for the church’s exclusive use.

In addition to the lease, members will be asked to approve a long-term spending plan for any profits the church may make.

“This is literally about reshaping the future of this church,” Thompson said.

Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.

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