First Baptist Church abandons plan to sell most of Downtown campus

With offers evaporating amid pandemic, the church instead will renovate the Lindsay Memorial Auditorium.

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Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church will not pursue its plan to sell a majority of its Downtown campus and consolidate to “The Hobson Block” as offers to buy its property dwindled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

First Baptist Senior Pastor Heath Lambert announced the church leadership’s decision Aug. 2 in a town hall meeting with the congregation.

“Because of the change of the real estate market brought on by the COVID recession, I want to let you know very clearly that The Hobson Block plan is over. We’re not talking about that anymore,” Lambert said.

Lambert said in January six to eight “large buyers” were interested in the 11.29-acre property listed by CBRE Jacksonville. Those buyers ended communication after the onset of the pandemic in March. 

“The kind of uncertainly created by the pandemic makes all of these guys go away. We haven’t seen or heard from them in months,” Lambert said.

Offers from other buyers within the last 30 days included smaller sections of the church’s Downtown real estate and were about 25% of the value brokers advised First Baptist to accept in January, Lambert said.

The pastor did not provide specific figures during the sermon-style town hall at the church’s Lindsay Memorial Auditorium. 

“Several weeks ago, when I received that information, I realized we’re up against a wall we can’t get over,” Lambert said.

The church’s decision halts its $30 million project announced Sept. 8 to renovate the historic Hobson Auditorium and redevelop 1.53 acres of church property on West Church Street.

That includes plans to demolish a 1927-era building to construct a new welcome center. The church fought a historic landmark designation recommended by city Planning and Development Department staff that Lambert and church officials said would have derailed the consolidation plans. 

First Baptist is abandoning plans to renovate the historic Hobson Auditorium and redevelop 1.53 acres of church property on West Church Street.
First Baptist is abandoning plans to renovate the historic Hobson Auditorium and redevelop 1.53 acres of church property on West Church Street.

The Jacksonville City Council voted 15-4 on June 23 to approve the church’s appeal of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission’s Feb. 26 decision to delay demolition.

The church secured a $15 million development loan to finance the project, Lambert told the Jacksonville Daily Record in February. He said the remaining cost would be covered through a capital fundraising plan. 

Lambert said during the town hall that without proceeds from the property sale to repay the debt, the church will not take the loan. 

“If the property can’t be sold right now, or has to be sold at fire-sale level, I am not, as the pastor of this church, going to commit us to a long-term loan that could sink us,” Lambert said.

Instead, First Baptist will base its ministry and operations in the Lindsay Memorial Auditorium. Lambert said a small group of members has pledged “millions of dollars” to fix water infiltration, HVAC and other infrastructure problems in the auditorium. 

The congregation approved the church’s plan to sell and consolidate its operations in response to declining church attendance and a growing multimillion-dollar maintenance bill on its aging 1.5 million-square-foot property.

Lambert said in September that the church’s total maintenance need is $7 million per year, 57% of its budget, and the entire 10-block complex has deferred maintenance needs of $37 million.

Lambert said Aug. 2 that the financial situation has not changed, but with staff reductions and other cuts, the church is “living within our means” for the first time in his five-year tenure as pastor.

The church expected to move to the “The Hobson Block” by June 2021. Now that those plans are halted, Lambert said the church can more easily adapt to operations in the Lindsay Memorial Auditorium. 

The senior pastor did not elaborate Aug. 2 on what the plan is now for the church’s Downtown campus outside of the auditorium. 

Lambert did not immediately respond to a request Aug. 3 for an update on the First Baptist property.