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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Feb. 19, 202005:20 AM EST

Investors buy First Baptist Church property, plan $25 million project

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Jim and Ellen Wiss plan to build 200 apartments on the site.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

Buyers of a nearly full city block of the First Baptist Church’s Downtown campus could invest $25 million for a mixed-use development at the site.

Jim and Ellen Wiss see Downtown Jacksonville “at the edge of a resurgence” and they’re not done acquiring property in the urban core.

EJPC LLC paid $1.13 million Feb. 10 to buy a portion of the church’s land bounded by Beaver, Julia, Ashley and Hogan streets. They bought two buildings — a four-story, about 20,000-square structure built in 1954 and a two-story, 10,000-square-foot building built in 1947.

EJPC is looking at adaptive reuse for the two-story building but has no plans yet for the four-story structure. 

The purchase is a result of First Baptist’s decision in September to downsize its 13.7-acre Downtown campus in response to declining church attendance and a growing multimillion-dollar maintenance bill on its aging 1.5 million-square-foot property.

Investors Ellen and Jim Wiss bought First Baptist Church property in the block bounded by Ashley, Hogan, West Beaver and North Julia streets.

Jim and Ellen Wiss are co-managers of EJPC. They said Feb. 18 they are working with church leadership to close on the remaining property within 60 days. That will total 1.38 acres to complete the purchase of the block.

Jim Wiss said they plan to move quickly to plan and build 200 apartments on the site “with the full amenity package” and retail space.

“We’re hiring architects as we speak. We’re moving right away with planning and working through the various city issues,” he said.

It’s not their first Downtown investment. They bought the historic Federal Reserve Bank Building at 424 N. Hogan St. in September through TBSOP LLC for $714,000. Jim Wiss said the First Baptist Church property is in the same neighborhood but not connected to the project.

Jim Wiss is the president and founder of Homkor Companies and Ellen Wiss is vice president of Homkor Companies and president of Homkor of Florida Inc. The couple has experience with historic renovations in Kansas City, Missouri, and in Colorado.

Jim Wiss said the city block purchase will not include First Coast Barber Academy which sits on an adjacent 0.21-acre parcel owned by Phoenix Industries of Jacksonville LLC.

“We’re still interested in aggressive buying. We think the Hogan and Laura (streets) corridor will be one of the better urban neighborhoods — very walkable with restaurants and retail,” he said.

Part of the block purchased by Investors Ellen and Jim Wiss.

Whoever buys First Baptist’s Downtown properties will be near other buildings set for private redevelopment and near the Downtown Investment Authority’s targeted retail incentive district.

Plans by Elias Hionides and Christian Allen of Atlantic Beach, through ACE JAX LLC, will convert the former Jones Bros. Furniture building and another vacant building across Hogan Street from EJPC’s acquisition into apartments with a street-level restaurant, office and retail space.

The DIA’s Targeted Food and Beverage Program aims to cluster restaurants and bars in the Hogan Street to Laura Street corridor.

Wiss said success in downtown Kansas City has been possible in part to city government buy-in.

“There will be a new use for the majority of the church properties and hopefully bring more people to that area. Assuming the right purchaser comes along for the church, it would create a new corridor,” Wiss said. “But we believe there is a big enough pent-up demand for urban core apartments that has not been filled to move forward.” 

CBRE Senior Vice President Oliver Barakat told the Daily Record in December the church had some parcels under contract with an unnamed prospective buyer. First Baptist hired the commercial real estate company to market the property.

Jim Wiss said they plan to move quickly to plan and build 200 apartments on the site.

Barakat said the parcels purchased by EJPC were not included in CBRE’s property listing or its marketing strategy for the remainder of the First Baptist site. He said the approach remains selling the property to a buyer who envisions a single master-planned development.

“We’re getting a fair amount of activity,” Barakat said. “I can’t say we’re close to any kind of announcement. We’d have to go through a pretty extensive contract period before we were ready to do that.”

Wiss said the couple approached First Baptist and secured a contract for the 1.38 acres 30 to 60 days before CBRE posted its listing for the remainder of the campus. 

First Baptist leaders hope to complete the Downtown consolidation in the first half of 2021. The church will keep a 182,000-square-foot building on 1.53 acres in the core called The Hobson Block to be the center of the church’s Downtown ministry.

Worship services will move to a renovated Hobson Auditorium, bounded by Church, Hogan, Laura and Ashley streets and built in 1904.

The church will go before the Historic Preservation Commission on Feb. 26 with its application to demolish its six-story Singles Building built in 1927 at 125 W. Church St. in the Hobson Block to make way for a new welcome center.

The First Baptist congregation gave church leadership its approval Sept. 8 to obtain a $30 million loan to finance the plan.

First Baptist is downsizing its 13.7-acre Downtown campus in response to declining church attendance and a growing multimillion-dollar maintenance bill.

 

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