JACKSONVILLE BEACH – A former post office building that once bustled with business is destined to be action central again – but this time for local outreach ministry.
Beach Church, a congregation in the Florida Conference, has partnered with local nonprofit agencies to use the building to offer help and healing to surrounding neighborhoods.
On March 4, church and community leaders held a kickoff ceremony that signaled the beginning of a $1 million renovation that will turn the facility into a resource center capable of meeting multiple needs in the area. (Click here to see a story about how a Florida Conference church in northwest Florida worked with other organizations to open a community resource center.)
Church leaders say they hope construction can begin by April, and the first service agency – a thrift store-and-food pantry operation – can move in by late June, followed by the Feeding Northeast Florida warehouse a couple of months later. Space should be ready for a mental health counseling organization by the end of the year.
Now named 7north, the 18,000-square-foot building next to Beach Church was purchased for $2 million in 2004 to provide extra parking. Church leaders expected then to eventually demolish the building to make way for an even larger parking lot. But thoughts changed.
“We ended up with God-led conversations with community partners that have led us to what is going to be the main footprint of the building today,” said Gary Tiller, Beach’s executive director of ministry.
BEAM, which stands for Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry, and Feeding Northeast Florida are two partners that have signed up to occupy space in the building. BEAM plans to move its current cramped thrift store operation to the newer renovated location, where it also will distribute fresh food to those in need.
The 7north facility also will house a regional food distribution warehouse with walk-in coolers and freezers.
“Feeding Northeast Florida has taken over the Second Harvest part of Feed America and centralized the entire operation on the west side of Jacksonville (about 30 miles away),” Tiller said.
“From that huge warehouse serving 17 counties, they needed a satellite distribution center where they could get fresh food into people’s hands faster so it is fast, fresh and free. They began talking about needing a satellite warehouse from Mayport to St. Augustine to serve the beaches centers east of the Intracoastal. They can drop food right here, and it can be in the hands of people within hours.”
BEAM is a homeless prevention program. Though there are some affluent areas in the vicinity, there’s also a need for services for low-income families working in the resorts and hotels, said Susan King, BEAM’s executive director.
“We help to get people through the speed bumps in life by offering emergency assistance – rent, utilities, car repairs – and we have two food pantries,” she said.
“The thrift store in Jacksonville Beach is closely aligned with Beach Church,” King said. “The larger 7north facility will allow a greater revenue for the thrift store with more parking available. That, in turn, will make money for the community and hopefully we can expand our services.
"The really amazing part of the story is taking a church asset and making it a community asset. To really support and embrace a feeling of community is an asset."
The third leg of the component will be mental health.
“We are still in the process of pulling it all together, but the Baptist Health Care is partnering with us,” Tiller said.
"The good thing about that is we can provide Christian-based services. They have a chaplaincy program that will rotate through here and an educational program for organizations, schools and churches dealing with adolescents and teens with mental health issues.”
The footprint of the building, which dates to 1969, will remain the same. But it will receive an exterior facelift and changes to accommodate its new tenants and bring it up to safety codes. Air conditioning, heating, the electrical system, sprinklers and other aspects of a public building will be updated.
“We are excited about it and especially excited to see how God’s going to lead this whole mental health section,” Tiller said. “It is a real need in this area.”
The congregation’s level of enthusiasm is high, Tiller said.
Funding the renovations primarily falls on the church, but plans include also reaching out to the community for donations.
Rev. Jerry Sweat, lead pastor at Beach, said the church has a long history of ministry, both global and local, including working with nonprofit agencies in the community in the past.
“Our church had actually helped start some of these agencies, so we are reconnecting with our roots,” he said.
“I tell my congregation that you want to be international missionaries in your life, but we had neglected our own backyard. Right now your greatest mission is where God has placed you.”
— Brenda Eggert Brader is a freelance writer based in Winter Haven.