By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
The First Baptist Church has sold prime real estate worth more than $1.2 million in a secret deal that raises concerns about the intentions of leaders of Fort’s oldest religious institution Lauderdale.
The new owner of the popular downtown land is an opaque Delaware limited liability company whose direct representative is the Naftali Group. This private New York-based real estate investment and development company claims $12 billion in assets.
Naftali announced plans for a residential project in Fort Lauderdale and earlier this year paid $21 million for the site of a Tires Plus store on the North Federal Highway near First Baptist, the South Florida Business Journal reported in April. The church property is almost adjacent to this site and could end up in the footprint of a new skyscraper.
The First Baptist Congregation voted at a July 31 business meeting to sell property at 501 NE 2nd St., a 0.179-acre lot with a demolished two-story building, according to documents and multiple accounts. Church officials did not reveal the sale price or the identity of the buyer.
Observers had anticipated the sale for more than a year, while church officials denied they planned to profit from South Florida’s housing boom.
“Property is our most valuable asset and it’s not for sale,” Steve Blount told the Sentinel of the sun Last year. Blount is executive director of ministry services at First Baptist.
SMALL CHURCH PLOT, BIG DOLLARS
Located north of the church’s steeple-shaped landmark at 301 E. Broward Boulevard, the small developed land the church sold has a fair market value of $1,223,430, according to its Broward County appraisal. in 2022.
The lot represents a small piece of First Baptist’s seven acres, valued before the current market at over $125 million. The acreage is probably worth more today.
The secret deal amplifies the assertion of distant First Baptist members that when Senior Pastor James Welch took charge in February 2019, fiscal accountability and transparency disappeared. So are members of power charting the future of the 115-year-old church by exercising their statutory rights, dissenters say
“It’s not about God anymore. This is a business,” said Brian Keno, spokesman for the dissidents called concerned members of the First Baptist Church.
He says Welch engineered a similar transaction at his former church in New Orleans, turning it into a for-profit public event space for Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups.
“When you operate in the dark, that’s what you get,” Keno said.
PASTOR WELCH ADVISES ‘DISCRETE’
Jack Seiler, lawyer and spokesperson for First Baptist, did not respond to Florida bulldog questions about the sale.
But perhaps Welch flagged his response to the congregation. He emailed a ‘note from the pastor’ to his flock on Friday, after a stream of social media messages burned the secret deal.
“Misinformation means that the story is generally false, and if you know this in advance, spreading it isn’t just gossip, it becomes slander,” he wrote. “Mishandled information is the needless sharing of an outright truth about someone without considering the consequences of how that information will affect that person.
“Just because someone did something wrong doesn’t mean we should or should talk about it with others,” Welch wrote. He advised “biblical discretion”.
Everyone gave Welch a chance when he came to First Baptist. Still, ‘my mind felt uneasy after two or three Sundays,’ said a church insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because many worshipers have been banished for challenging the pastor. .
“Something was wrong, the way he presented himself, the way his wife presented himself,” the insider said. “It just seemed like it was all about them, not the people. He didn’t seem like a warm person. He has a job to do. There doesn’t seem to be any interaction, it doesn’t feel authentic.
CHURCH INSIDER ‘SHOCKED’ BY SECRET
Under Welch’s leadership, the church is in financial trouble, dissenters and former members say.
They blame him for alienating and evicting longtime devotees — as well as their donations — and shutting down popular programs and events, particularly a lucrative Christmas show that Welch killed after the 2019 performance.
The 501 NE 2nd St. building is symbolic of the church’s recent evolution. Prior to Welch, the downstairs workshop turned out props for the popular contest; a group of young people gathered upstairs and the children played volleyball in the yard.
The youth group has been disbanded. At the July 31 business meeting, Welch said the building was only used for storage, according to the church insider.
“It’s just sitting there, wasting away. They felt it was best to sell it and cash out,” the insider said.
“They didn’t say anything about the price and who it would be sold to,” this person said. “I was a bit shocked.”
WELCH OPPONENT SLAMS THE SECRET
Welsh opponent John Harris, who hopes to help represent his side in the court-ordered arbitration, has said he can go along with the idea of selling underutilized property – but not the secret way the sale has been conducted.
“If I were a deacon, I could say, ‘Maybe that would be a good idea, put the profits to good use to improve the facility and put some of it in the bank.’ But I would have said, ‘Where’s the money?’ I would never have voted for anything that was hidden from me,” Harris said.
“So shame on them for voting ‘Yes’ and of course those of us who know better were kicked out of membership at the time, which was part of the grand scheme I’m sure” , did he declare.
Before the end of Welch’s second year as pastor, Harris and other opponents won a vote of no confidence that threatened his job with $250,000.
Church leadership declared the vote invalid.
“DIMEMBERED” CHURCH MEMBERS PERSIST
Dissenters say Welch retaliated by ousting any deacons and trustees who questioned his authority.
In April 2021, First Baptist administrators expelled about 200 members for “attempting a hostile takeover of the church through illegal meetings,” church official Romney Rogers said in a statement sent by e-mail. Moreover, the rebel faction “refused to respond with repentance to the discipline of the Church”.
The “dismembered” members, as they called themselves, have been fighting ever since to regain their pews and influence.
“We want to get to the point where someone in a position of authority says, ‘Yeah, that pastor was rejected,'” Harris said.
Weeks after the purge, attorney James Geiger, a 50-year-old First Baptist who was among the exiles, sued the church in Broward Circuit Court to force arbitration.
Geiger and his supporters won their case three months ago. But Seiler, representing the church, has taken steps that keep them in court and with the Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC), the appointed arbitrator.
SEILER: THE CHURCH SEEK A RESOLUTION
“Seiler is really good at emitting smoke,” Harris said. “He did it for as long as he could in court and now he is doing it with the ICC administration.”
Seiler said the church wants to resolve disputes with the dissenting faction — internally, preferably — and he’s only trying to clear up confusion over the scope of arbitration.
Meanwhile, the group of concerned members are scrambling to raise funds and keep going.
“We won’t rest until the senior pastor is removed,” Harris said. “Everything else is just peripheral.”
In an interview with Florida bulldog after Judge Jeffrey Levenson ordered arbitration, Seiler dismissed the idea that the dissidents could get Welch fired. If that is their goal, he said, “it’s all just spinning wheels.”
FIRST BAPTIST QUICK SALE
The impending arbitration, which must be a priority for Welch and his coterie, affected the timing of the sale of the property, Harris said.
“You just have to assume that they thought arbitration might get in the way of the deal, so they rushed it together,” he said.
The July 31 congregational vote was apparently the proforma approval of a concluded deal. July 31 is also the date of sale indicated on the property assessment. The warranty deed that was registered on August 2 shows that 501 NE 2nd St. changed hands for a nominal amount of $10.
Now church members are wondering about the actual selling price. Does it depend on the return or development of the property by the new owner?
“We know it can’t be $10; it just can’t be,” Keno said. “It was sold in one of the most mysterious ways imaginable. Incredible. It blows my mind.
FEARS FOR THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH
Earlier this year, Naftali entered the downtown Fort Lauderdale market through the acquisition of Tires Plus.
A flat map shows the 501 NE 2nd St. parcel sandwiched between two empty lots owned by developer Jim Ellis; one of them borders Tires Plus.
Tied together, the four individual lots total about 1.36 acres, Keno said. This may be enough land for another monolithic tower in an area that is already full of them.
The church insider fears First Baptist is falling victim to mismanagement and building fever.
“I hate to feel this, but I have a feeling that if things don’t work out, Welch will say we don’t have enough money to continue,” the insider said. “I don’t think it’s going to stop with this one property. It may take a few years, but I don’t think it’s going to end there.”