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Preparing for the Big Move

By the time Reverend Wayne G. Thompson became pastor of First Baptist Institutional Church negotiations for the church's property in the Gas Plant area was almost completed. His first order of business was to ensure the church receive a fair settlement for its relocation and to work with leadership to find the right location.

The remaining churches were at somewhat of an advantage because they were able to utilize information gained from past displacement negotiations. The experiences of churches and businesses during the redevelopment of Methodist Town, and the relocation that took place during Phase I of the Gas Plant area were important. What they learned is that the value is not in the building but the land. In order to move, the churches needed to be in a position to buy land plus construct their new churches. In the end, the three remaining churches were able to secure deals valued at close to $1 million each.

Where Are They Now?

I presented Pastor Thompson with a list of churches that were once located in the Gas Plant area in hopes that he could help me determine where they once stood. During a period that preceded the 1950s, The St. Petersburg Times, had a section titled News of Negroes of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. In this one page section was all of the good news pertaining to Negroes, but mainly the black church community. The paper provided the names of churches and their current events but interestingly, for decades did not list their addresses.

Thompson reminds me that “Some of the churches were relocated (in the 1970s) for the interstate” so he wouldn’t be able to help with identifying each one. I shift the conversation to the impact on the faith-based community and the reaction to being displaced.

“It impacted the whole community because they moved us out. I can’t say if they were upset. I can’t say if they were happy. The people (the city) said to move so they moved. It’s not about what you want it’s about what was necessary and what had to be done. Imminent Domain is always there so when they say you have to move, you have to move.”

He continues, “People are survivors so they do what’s necessary to be done. The church is like people. I was told First Baptist didn’t want to move but the city said they would take it and we won’t get anything. So they had to go back and talk.”

I clarify my original question by explaining what I meant by impact. The question was more so about membership. How did the move impact the church's membership rolls?

“There was no change because, by that time, we had 30 years down there, or however many years they were there, they were just doing what they had to do. We moved here and people left and people came. People drove in by that time. It was the 80s and a lot of people weren’t living there anymore. It was all gutted out.

The white people with the tenement houses and the people who were upwardly mobile, they were already gone. Then you had…they took everything out of there. All of the (housing) projects were gone. They took all the homes people owned behind there from 17th to 19th street. There is one house that’s still there. My uncle owned that house and he would not sell it. It’s still standing.”

Baseball Stole More Than the Gas Plant Area

As Pastor Thompson shares the history he goes beyond the Gas Plant area which is bound by 16th Street South to Dr. MLK King St (Ninth St) and First Avenue to Fifth Avenue South. The redevelopment plan and the interstate expanded west to 22nd Street South. Across the street from the church’s 16th Street location was a low-income housing project named Laurel Park (Royal Court) (1987). It was built in 1940 and consisted of 16 residential buildings and 168 units, including a community daycare center. Laurel Park was home to an estimated 500 residents. It was torn down along with several private residences to make room for a surface parking lot for the baseball stadium.

It was interesting that his uncle’s home still remains. As a young child, my aunt and uncle’s first home was on 18th Street and 4th Avenue South. I wondered how people get away with not selling. He replied, “They refuse to sell and I guess if the city decides they don’t need it, they let them stay, but if they decide today they need it they are going to go and take it.”

It’s not about the impact for us it’s always been about mobility for us to get up and move. When we’re not the owners and even when we are…First Baptist owned the property, Bethel Metropolitan owned the property, Prayer Tower owned the property.”

Getting What’s Owed

Continuing, he shares, “So they could have dealt with what they had to deal with but when it came to the money they were only going to give the replacement value. They gave the churches the replacement value and what it would cost to rebuild at that time. It wasn’t enough money compared to what they had put into their buildings. But they gave more than what they would have gotten if they had just sold the properties.

That’s why this church (speaking of First Baptist) got to be down here. It’s what it is (referring to the size) because the leadership, Emmanuel Stewart and the rest of them didn’t want to build. The original plan was for a 1,500 seat church, and for months we battled them for 1,500 seats.”

The leadership team eventually won despite the wishes of their new pastor. I inquire as to whether or not the church is bigger than the previous church?

“No, I don’t think so. I think it was an even swap. The old church had a basement with square footage the length of the church. It went from 16th Street to the alley. The upstairs was carved up and had offices and classrooms. That’s where all the space was but the downstairs was huge and the length of the building. In those days it was a civil defense location. That’s where they talk about nuclear bombs and being underground. That’s when churches had a basement. Bethel Community had a basement, First Baptist had a basement. Bethel Metropolitan didn’t have a basement, its ground floor was on the street level but the sanctuary was on the second floor.”

In the end, First Baptist Institutional received “$932,824 for a property that had a market value of $544,800.” The money the three churches received was likened to “Manna from heaven?” Pastor Thompson, at the time, stated “The money allowed his church to build a new worship hall without taking out a mortgage. So all-in-all we haven’t done too bad,” referring to the new church in terms of square footage. (Wagner 1990)

Smaller churches like St. John Missionary Baptist Church, which relocated two blocks away, to Fifth Avenue South and 32nd Street, only received $28,000. (Wagner 1990)

Choosing the Best Parcel of Land

Fist Institutional receive “$932,824 for a property that had a market value of $544,800.” The money the three churches received was likened to “Manna from heaven?” Pastor Thompson, at the time, stated “The money allowed his church to build a new worship hall without taking out a mortgage. So all-in-all we haven’t done too bad,” referring to the new church in terms of square footage.

Interestingly, First Baptist Institutional lost its first church to Webb’s City. Twenty-five years later the major retailer would close. Webb’s City became outdated when new shopping centers like Central Plaza and Tyrone Mall began to open. The church's new location was one block south of Central Plaza.

The land they chose was vacant, but Thompson explains it was once a pond.

“There was nothing here. There used to be a goose pond that had been filled in. We spent about $40,000 to build this land up for infrastructure to ensure it could hold the building because it was prone to flooding. We had to build up to codes and other stuff.

The pond was before my time but that’s why they didn’t want to build here. They (leadership) knew at one time there used to be a pond here. Then they told us we had to get a soil boring to test the land to see what it could handle. They sent a white man out here to do that and he told us how we had to build it up. Deacon Brown said what can we do to bring this up more? Not just by what your specs say but what more can we do to build it up and that’s when that they decided to build up the whole piece of property.”

Weathering Storms

A tropical system hit the area about a decade ago and severely damaged the church’s roof. Aside from the beautiful stained glass windows that have followed the church with each move, it had a beautiful cross atop the steeple. The steeple fell as the tiles were pulled from the church by tropical storm force winds. Although I no longer attended First Baptist, I felt a sudden sadness in seeing the damage. Due to the exorbitant cost of repairs, it wasn’t until this year that the church began to repair the damage. The reflection led to my final question in this section of the interview.

Did the maintenance and upkeep of the new church increase or remain the same? Pastor Thompson admits expenses did increase but attributes it to his ministry. “When I came on board, the church was open more and we were doing more things as a church throughout the week,” he explained.

As I visited various churches that have built bigger and better sanctuaries over the past forty years, it is hard to deny that church attendance is on the decline. With declining membership comes a decline in tithes. One thing I learned working for a church is, for every faithful tithing member a church loses today, they will need three to five new members to equal that members giving.

In part three, we’ll discuss the future of the black church’s role in St. Petersburg as gentrification takes root and the Rays impending departure.

Photo 1 Credit: St. Petersburg Times

Photo 2 Credit: Rosalyn Reese Facebook

1987, p. 1.

Wagner, Norma. “Churches Thankful for Dome Blessing.” St. Petersburg Times, 5 Mar. 1990, p. 29.

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