BRADENTON -- A growing congregation is praying for a buyer for its building so it can continue to grow elsewhere.
The church must move if it wants to expand because of city land use policy limiting growth among tax-exempt spiritual and religious organizations.
Greater Mount Pilgrim Primitive Baptist Church, 126 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., needs space for new programs, but city policy will not allow it to expand its building.
"We desperately need space because we have outgrown our building at our current size to be able to stay there," said Pastor Dr. Willie Williams, a former Lakeland mayor and city commissioner.
The church has been in existence about 80 years, Williams said, and is an integral part of the community. Williams, previously pastor of Greater Mount Moriah Primitive Baptist Church in Tampa, took over in 2010. The average Sunday attendance hovers between 100 and 200 at the 3,000-square-foot church, which includes a separate 100-square-foot storage unit.
"The Lord has just blessed us, and we have had programs to involve youth and to do outreach in the community," Williams said.
The Primitive Baptist Church is known as the "feet-washing Baptists." The name "primitive" means the first or original Baptists, Williams said.
"We're basic Bible, God-fearing Christians," he said.
The church keeps connected with youth membership by raising funds to send them to conferences and programs. It also provides scholarships and financial awards for colleges.
To keep connected to the Bradenton congregation,
Williams said, the church initiated programs that include feeding the community, establishing new youth drill, dance and step teams.
To be able to do all those programs to the fullest, the church found staying put a challenge because of the city's form-based code.
The city approved the code in June 2011 and it prevents religious institutions from building or expanding in its urban center zone to encourage redevelopment, said Tim Polk, city director of planning and community development.
The decision aimed to prevent more properties from becoming exempt from real estate taxes, since churches fall under that category. The urban zone mainly stretches from 15th Street West to east of U.S. 301 between Sixth and 10th avenues.
"We would try to expand on our current site only to find out that the city changed zoning there several years ago where we cannot add on," Williams said.
The church could petition for a variance to allow expansion, but there is no guarantee it would be granted, Williams said.
Given those factors, the church decided to hire a real estate agent to sell the property.
Its current building, constructed in 1971, sits on .67 acres and features a main sanctuary that seats about 175 people, with expansion of up to about 190, leaving little room on for the congregation on Sundays, said Ken Clanton of Wagner Realty's Commercial Division. The church also features a classroom and social hall, he said.
"They would like to sell it to another church," Clanton said. "It is also set up well for a daycare center, a small community center or turn it into office space if you want."
Once renovated into office space, Clanton said, it cannot return as a church under city regulations.
The property has drawn several prospective buyers, he said. One possibility could be a deal with the owners of Zeko's Mediterranean Grill, 820 First St. W,, which Clanton worked with to lease property to the restaurant.
"They need more parking already, and they would be in a good position," Clanton said of Zeko's. "It would be a good marriage if he owned it because he could lease it as a church back to the church, and the only time there would be an issue would be on Sundays."
The church has not picked out a new location yet since a move is dependent on the sale of the building, Clanton said. The asking price is $375,700.
"They have looked at several properties, but they really can't do anything until they know they have a sale for this one," Clanton said.
It could still remain a church if the building doesn't undergo extensive renovations, Williams said, but whatever happens to the property isn't up to him.
"The next buyer, we wish them well, and what the new owners plan, that will be in the Lord's hands," Williams said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 00941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.