By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
First Baptist Church sold prime real estate worth more than $1.2 million in a secretive deal that raises concerns about the intentions of the leadership at Fort Lauderdale’s oldest religious institution.
The new owner of the prized downtown land is an opaque, Delaware limited liability company whose out-front representative is the Naftali Group. This private, New York-based real estate investment and development firm claims $12 billion in assets.
Naftali has announced plans for a Fort Lauderdale residential project and earlier this year paid $21 million for the site of a Tires Plus store on North Federal Highway near First Baptist, the South Florida Business Journal reported in April. The church property is nearly adjacent to that site and could wind up within the footprint of a new highrise.
The First Baptist congregation voted at a July 31 business meeting to sell property at 501 NE 2nd St., a 0.179-acre lot with a tear-down, two-story building, according to documents and multiple accounts. Church officials did not reveal the sales price or the buyer’s identity.
Observers had anticipated the sale for more than a year, while church officials denied they were planning to cash in on the South Florida real estate boom.
“The property is our most valuable asset and it’s not for sale,” Steve Blount told the Sun Sentinel last year. Blount is executive director of ministry services at First Baptist.
TINY CHURCH PARCEL, BIG DOLLARS
Located to the north of the church’s steepled landmark at 301 E. Broward Boulevard, the small, developed lot that the church sold has a fair market value of $1,223,430, its 2022 Broward County assessment states.
The lot represents a little chunk of First Baptist’s seven acres, valued before the current hot market at upwards of $125 million. The acreage is likely worth more today.
The secret deal amplifies the claim of estranged First Baptist members that when Lead Pastor James Welch took charge in February 2019, financial accountability and transparency vanished. So did members’ power to chart the future of the 115-year-old church by exercising their bylaw-given rights, the dissidents say
“This is not about God anymore. This is about a business,” said Brian Keno, spokesman for the dissidents who are called Concerned Members of First Baptist Church.
He says Welch engineered a similar transaction at his former church in New Orleans, transforming it into a for-profit public events space for Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups.
“When you operate in darkness, this is what you get,” Keno said.
PASTOR WELCH COUNSELS ‘DISCRETION’
Jack Seiler, attorney and spokesman for First Baptist, did not respond to Florida Bulldog questions about the sale.
But perhaps Welch signaled his response to the congregation. He emailed a “pastor’s note” to his flock on Friday, after a stream of social media posts scorched the secret deal.
“Misinformation means the story is typically false, and if you know that beforehand, spreading it is not only gossip, it becomes slander,” he wrote. “Mishandled information is needlessly sharing shameless truth about someone without thinking through the consequences of how that information will affect the said person.
“Just because someone did something wrong does not mean that we need to, or get to, talk about it with others,” Welch wrote. He counseled “biblical discretion.”
Everyone gave Welch a chance when he arrived at First Baptist. Still, “my spirit felt uneasy after two or three Sundays,” said a church insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because many congregants have been banished for challenging the pastor.
“Something didn’t seem right, the way he portrayed himself, the way his wife portrayed herself,” the insider said. “It just seemed it’s all about them, not the people. He didn’t seem like a warm-hearted person. He’s got a job to do. It doesn’t seem like there’s any interaction, it doesn’t seem genuine.”
CHURCH INSIDER ‘SHOCKED’ AT SECRECY
Under Welch’s stewardship the church has financial problems, dissidents and former members say.
They blame him for alienating and ejecting longtime churchgoers – along with their donations – and for ending popular programs and events, especially a lucrative Christmas pageant Welch killed after the 2019 performance.
The 501 NE 2nd St. building is symbolic of the church’s recent evolution. Before Welch, the downstairs workshop turned out props for the popular pageant; a youth group met upstairs and the kids played volleyball in the yard.
The youth group was disbanded. At the July 31 business meeting, Welch said the building is used only for storage, according to the church insider.
“It’s just sitting there, wasting away. They felt it was best to sell it and get some funds out of it,” the insider said.
“They didn’t say anything about how much it would be and who it was getting sold to,” this person said. “I was kind of shocked.”
WELCH OPPONENT SLAMS SECRECY
Welch opponent John Harris, who expects to help represent his side in court-ordered arbitration, said he could accept the idea of selling off underused property – but not the secretive way the sale was conducted.
“If I were a deacon I might say, ‘It may be a good idea, put the proceeds to good use to upgrade the facility and bank some of it.’ But I would have said, ‘Where’s the money?’ I would never have voted for anything that would be kept from me,” Harris said.
“So shame on them for voting ‘Yes,’ and of course those of us who know better have been barred from membership at this time, which was all part of the grand scheme, I’m sure,” he said.
Before the end of Welch’s second year as pastor, Harris and other opponents won a no-confidence vote that threatened his $250,000 job.
Church leadership declared the vote invalid.
‘DISMEMBERED’ CHURCH MEMBERS PERSIST
The dissidents say Welch struck back by sidelining all the deacons and trustees who questioned his authority.
In April 2021, First Baptist trustees expelled an estimated 200 members for “attempting a hostile takeover of the church through illegal meetings,” church official Romney Rogers explained in an emailed statement. Also, the rebellious faction “refused to respond with repentance to Church discipline.”
The “dismembered” members, as they called themselves, have been fighting to regain their pews and influence ever since.
“We want to get to the point where somebody in authority says, ‘Yes, this pastor has been voted out,’ ” Harris said.
Weeks after the purge, lawyer James Geiger, a 50-year First Baptist member who was among the exiled, sued the church in Broward Circuit Court to force arbitration.
Geiger and his supporters won their case three months ago. But Seiler, representing the church, has been making moves that impede them in court and with the Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC), the designated referee.
SEILER: CHURCH SEEKS RESOLUTION
“Seiler’s really good at throwing up smoke,” Harris said. “He did it as long as he could in court and now he’s doing it with the administration of the ICC.”
Seiler has said the church wants to resolve disputes with the dissident faction – inhouse, preferably – and he’s only trying to clear up confusion about the scope of the arbitration.
Meanwhile, the Concerned Members group is scrambling to raise money and keep going.
“We won’t rest until the lead pastor’s been removed,” Harris said. “Anything else is just peripheral.”
In an interview with Florida Bulldog after Judge Jeffrey Levenson ordered arbitration, Seiler rejected the idea that the dissidents could get Welch fired. If that’s their goal, he said, “the whole thing is just spinning wheels.”
FIRST BAPTIST’S QUICK-TURN SALE
The looming arbitration, which must be top of mind for Welch and his coterie, affected the timing of the property sale, Harris said.
“You just have to assume they felt arbitration could hamper the deal so they whipped it up in a hurry,” he said.
The congregation’s July 31 vote apparently was the pro forma approval of a done deal. July 31 is also the sales date listed on the property assessment. The warranty deed that was recorded Aug. 2 shows 501 NE 2nd St. changed hands for a nominal $10.
Now church members wonder about the actual sales price. Does it depend on the new owner flipping or developing the property?
“We know it can’t be $10; it just can’t be,” Keno said. “It was sold in one of the most mysterious ways that one can imagine. Incredible. That just blows my mind.”
FEARS FOR CHURCH’S FUTURE
Earlier this year Naftali entered the downtown Fort Lauderdale market via the Tires Plus acquisition.
A plat map shows the 501 NE 2nd St. parcel sandwiched between two empty lots owned by developer Jim Ellis; one of them borders Tires Plus.
Strung together, the four individual lots total about 1.36 acres, Keno said. That may be enough land for another monolithic tower in an area that’s already full of them.
The church insider fears First Baptist will be the casualty of mismanagement and building fever.
“I hate to feel this way, but I have a feeling that if things don’t work out, Welch will say we don’t have enough cash to carry on,’’ the insider said. “I don’t think it’s gonna stop with that one property. It may take some years, but I don’t think it’s gonna stop there.’’