The congregation of one of Orlando's oldest churches voted Tuesday to sell some of its land so the new performing-arts center can be built downtown, clearing a major hurdle for the project's future.
The decision by First United Methodist Church of Orlando to accept the $28.35 million offer of cash, land, a new building and parking will allow arts boosters to demolish a church building to make way for the $425 million arts center.
"It's a monumental night," said Jim Pugh, chairman of the Dr. P. Phillips Orlando Performing Arts Center. "The church gets its needs met for the next 100 years, we'll get a site that makes our construction cost less and the city will get a performing-arts center of the quality that it deserves."
It was a critical vote for both the arts center and the church.
The arts center's planners want a full two square blocks on which to build a complex of three performance halls, retail shops, restaurants, an office building, a hotel and a public plaza.
Members of the center's board of directors had been proceeding as if they had a clean slate, though they knew from the start that they would have to build around the church property unless they could work out an agreement for the land.
For their part, members of the congregation of First United Methodist had to weigh the needs of their church -- founded in 1882 -- for generations to come.
In the end, the congregation decided the offer was too good to pass up. About 360 of the church's 3,400 members voted at a special meeting Tuesday night, with 88 percent favoring the offer.
"The church thought it through carefully and really studied it," church trustee Vernon Swartsel said. "We want the arts center to succeed and think it will be better with this vote."
The church's main campus sits across South Street from land earmarked for the arts center.
The church bought the property in 1988 for $5.6 million. Earlier this year, the church finished a multimillion-dollar renovation of the building on the property, turning it into a Ministries and Education center that now houses a child-care facility.
The $28.35 million deal works like this:
*The arts board will replace a building on the church's main campus with a new building large enough to accommodate the child-care facility and ministry programs.
*Once the building is completed, the Ministries and Education building coveted by arts center officials will be torn down to make way for the center.
*The city will realign South Street in front of First United Methodist, effectively giving the church an extra half-acre that could be developed.
*Another church-owned building that is vacant will be razed and replaced with a parking lot for church members.
*The church will end up with about $5.5 million to spend on new facilities, church programs or reducing its debt.
Elisabeth Manley, who served on a church task force that studied the issue, said the congregation's decision allows the church to consolidate its spread-out campus and ends years of confusion that came with stop-and-go plans for an arts center.
"We've been trying to figure out what's going on with that property since we bought it in 1988," she said.
"Every important project we've had since then has had an umbrella of uncertainty over it."
Though much of the money to build the arts center would come from a tax on hotel rooms, the money for the church land will come from private contributions.
The arts center board has raised $84 million toward its goal of $110 million for construction and $25 million for an operating endowment.
Mark Schlueb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5417.