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Members approve plans to relocate conference center

Members approve plans to relocate conference center

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Members approve plans to relocate conference center

By Tita Parham | March 11, 2009 {0982}

LAKELAND, Fla. — Lay and clergy members of the Florida Conference voted to sell the current conference center facility in Lakeland and purchase a new building at a special session of the conference late last month.

Lay and clergy members stand to vote their approval of the recommendation to sell the Florida Conference Center and purchase property in downtown Lakeland for a new conference center. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #09-1114. For longer description see photo gallery.

An overwhelming majority of the 616 members gathered Feb. 28 at Florida Southern College’s Branscomb Auditorium approved a recommendation from the conference board of trustees to sell the conference center property to Florida Southern College and purchase a building in downtown Lakeland.

In addition to housing the conference’s episcopal offices and administrative and ministry staff, the new center will be home to the Florida United Methodist Foundation Inc. and Georgia Florida United Methodist Federal Credit Union. Both organizations relocated from the current conference center to an office building in downtown Lakeland several years ago due to a lack of space at the conference center.

Applause greeted the news that no connectional giving dollars will be used for the purchase and renovation of the new building.

“In the spirit of a former president, read my lips — no apportionment dollars will be used for this project,” said the Rev. Dr. Bob Gibbs, chairman of the task force created in 2006 to research options for a new conference center and pastor at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Brandon.

The purchase price of the new building, located at 92 Lake Wire Drive, is $3.4 million, Gibbs said. The cost to renovate the building, which formerly housed the law offices of Holland & Knight and is now gutted, is estimated at $2.6 million.

The Rev. Dr. Bob Gibbs explains the costs associated with the Florida Conference board of trustees’ recommendation regarding the current and future conference center. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #09-1115. For longer description see photo gallery.

Florida Southern College has agreed to purchase the conference center for $3.5 million, which will go toward the purchase of the Lake Wire building. The college plans to use the current property as the site of the Roberts Academy, a transitional school that will eventually serve gifted students in grades two through nine who have dyslexia. The academy will also provide the college’s education majors with experience in working with students who have learning differences. The site will house the college’s education department, classrooms for the academy, faculty offices, the Roberts Center for Literacy and Learning, and the Hollis Hayes Children’s Library.

The Florida United Methodist Foundation will provide $1.5 million toward the cost of purchasing and renovating the new building; the credit union will enter into a lease valued at $500,000. Up to $1 million in conference reserves will be allocated for the renovations, Gibbs said.

Mickey Wilson, the conference’s treasurer, said those reserves are “unrestricted and undesignated” and “not related at all” to pension, retiree benefits, new church development or ministry protection funds.

Currently, the conference has $6.8 million in reserves. In addition to assisting with the renovations of the new building, a little more than $700,000 will be used to roll back apportionment levels to 2008 figures, a move designed to help conference churches cope with the economic downturn. 2009 statements will be recomputed this month, and those churches that have already paid their apportionments in full will receive a check for the difference.

In response to a question about the ability of reserves to meet conference needs in the future in light of the economy and the possibility churches may not be able to pay their apportionments, Wilson said an analysis done by the conference’s Council on Finance and Administration shows reserves are sufficient for the next several years to offset costs.

The Rev. David McEntire reads the board of trustees' recommendation. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #09-1116. For longer description see photo gallery.

The Rev. David McEntire, chairman of the conference trustees and pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, read the full text of the recommendation, and after discussion from the floor it was approved by approximately 99 percent of the body, according to Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, who called and presided over the session.

“I thought the proposal made good sense,” Whitaker said after the session. “It really came to us — it was not something we had planned. I thought the annual conference would have a similar judgment. I was pleased they did.”

McEntire said he was “elated” with the outcome. “My only surprise was there were not a few more dissenters,” he said. “It was much more unanimous than I thought it would be.”

Wilson agreed. He was expecting approval, he said, but not at the level of agreement achieved.

Best option, best time

Some may have questioned the wisdom of purchasing property during the current global financial crisis, but the option to sell the conference center and purchase the Lake Wire property is possible, in part, because of the economy, Gibbs said in his report during the session.

Two years ago the purchase price of the Lake Wire building was $4.75 million. The cost per square foot then was $200, compared to $71 per square foot now, McEntire said. The task force estimates it would have cost nearly $8 million to deconstruct and renovate the building, which was not gutted at the time.

It’s also “a great time to hire people to build,” and the costs of materials are lower, McEntire said.

The Lake Wire building will provide 33,000 square feet of space for offices and meeting rooms through a three-story center section and two two-story side sections, Gibbs said.

The foundation and credit union offices will comprise 6,000 square feet and 1,500 square feet of space, respectively. The current conference center has 21,000 square feet.

At 33,000 square feet, the Lake Wire Drive property provides 12,000 more square feet of space than the current Florida Conference Center. Architectural drawing courtesy of Fisher Architects.

The lack of space at the current site to house the various conference agencies is one reason a task force of conference trustees, clergy and laity, and experts in the construction industry was created to consider options for a new conference center. More than 70 staff members will work at the new conference center.

The current center is also “showing its age” and becoming “less suitable for the current needs of staff,” Gibbs said.

Heating and cooling systems are outdated, he said, and the building is not able to accommodate the technological changes that have occurred in the nearly 40 years conference staff has been housed on the current site.

Gibbs said the task force “considered at length and analyzed” a number of options, including renovating the current center, tearing it down and rebuilding on the same site, and selling the property and moving to a new location — either leasing space in an existing site or building a new facility.

The costs associated with those options were prohibitive, however, Gibbs said. Remodeling the current site would cost an estimated $4.5 million, with an additional $600,000 to $700,000 needed to lease space for staff while renovations were being made, he said. Building a new facility would cost between $6 million and $7 million; additional costs to demolish the current facilities would also be incurred. And without the sale of property for either option, no income would be generated to offset costs.

Florida Southern College President Dr. Anne Kerr explains the mission of the school’s education department and its plans for the current conference center property. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #09-1117. For longer description see photo gallery.

The option to sell the current property would provide income to purchase a new building, but would also generate costs related to utilities, roads and parking, in addition to leasing space for staff. The task force did consider relocating the center to another city, Gibbs said, but determined costs to move staff would be too high. Lakeland was still the best location, he said.

Task force members also considered a fourth option: building a facility on a local church site in Lakeland that would become a combined conference center, local church and ministry laboratory. Because a new conference center is not part of the Florida Conference capital and endowment campaign currently underway, Gibbs said, the task force questioned the conference’s ability to raise the funds needed for that option, which would include an estimated $10 million for extensive demolition, new construction, parking and other costs.

After the 2008 Florida Annual Conference Event, the pieces for a fifth option — the one approved at the special session — began to fall into place, Gibbs said.

An endowment from Marjorie and Hal Roberts of Lakeland to establish the Roberts Academy enabled Florida Southern College to express renewed interest in purchasing the current property. And with the lease on the foundation’s current facility set to expire, the foundation was considering other options, among them the possibility of partnering with the conference on purchasing a building that could house conference and foundation staff.

Wilson said the conference’s financial staff estimates the conference will see a savings of $250,000 a year through the upgraded technological capabilities of the new center and reduced cost of utilities. That translates, he said, into a reduction in the conference budget and local church apportionments.

The future conference center in downtown Lakeland will be more easily accessible by major roadways. Graphic by Greg Moore.

Gibbs said the city of Lakeland is planning a renovation of the Lake Wire area, adding a park and new lighting. “The new building will be the center” of that revitalization, he said. 

And with the extension of the Bartow Highway behind the building, the area is more easily accessible from major roadways, like Interstate 4, than the current conference center, Gibbs added, which was a consideration of the task force in choosing a new location.


Wilson said he hopes the conference agencies calling the new conference center home will be “fully in the new facility by May (2010).”

The process to make that happen can start, McEntire said, as soon as the contracts to sell the current center, purchase the new property and begin construction are executed. McEntire said he hopes all contracts can be dealt with at the same time.

Steve Edwards, a member of the task force, a contractor and owner of Edwards Construction Services, estimates it will take nine months to renovate the Lake Wire property and move in.

Once the contract for the sale of the current center to Florida Southern College is signed, the college has said conference staff may continue to occupy the current center for 12 months at cost of $1 per month, Wilson said.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.