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Pastor: Without Walls church will not close

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:29 AM
TAMPA -

The pastor of Without Walls International Church confirmed Sunday that a $14 million deal is on the table to sell the church site near Raymond James Stadium.

Randy White said there are "definitely no plans" to close Without Walls, once one of the largest independent evangelical churches in the country and now recovering from debt and scandal.

In fact, a search committee began looking for a new site last week in anticipation of the sale going through.

"We (are) looking for a venue within a 3-mile radius," he said.

Still, he said, it's too early to call it a done deal.

"The bank has to accept it. The church board has to approve it. And the buyers have to get permitting," said White, who leads the nondenominational congregation. "But if this all goes through, it would be an incredible situation for us."

He said the church owes about $10 million to the California-based Evangelical Christian Credit Union for its two buildings on East Columbus Drive and North Grady Avenue. One houses the sanctuary and the other is the former administrative building.

A $4.4 million contract is already in place for the administrative building and is expected to close in February. The buyers, The Richmond Group of Florida, recently made the offer for the second building, bringing the total purchase price to $14 million.

The developer has applied to rezone about 11 acres to build 557 upscale apartments on the site. Michael Horner, who represents both Without Walls and The Richmond Group, told The Tampa Tribune last week that part of the project has already been approved by the city.

Commercial development with restaurants and shops is slated for about 2.5 acres on the north portion of the site. Horner said an application for that phase of the project likely will be filed "within 30 days or so."

White said the church's property has been on the market for about 18 months.

"This is a win-win situation for everyone involved," he said. "It's a project that will be good for the area. And it will leave us debt-free, and with money in the bank."

White said he is also still trying to sell his mansion on Bayshore Drive, which has been on the market three years and now has a taxable value of $1.6 million.

He said he has no intentions of putting up a new church building. Instead, church staff will seek existing properties, as in 1998 when Without Walls purchased a former Canada Dry bottling plant to house its current operations.

"I never want to take on a debt again," he said.

Randy and his former wife, Paula White, founded Without Walls in 1991, calling it "the perfect church for people who aren't." It grew to one of the largest independent evangelical churches in the country, with a reported 22,000 members and bringing in as much as $55 million a year.

But their lives started to unravel in 2007 — a public divorce, a U.S. Senate inquiry into church finances, his daughter's death, media scrutiny for the couple's jet-setting lifestyle, his addiction to prescription drugs and a stroke.

Paula White took over Without Walls for a few years, and now leads a church in Orlando.

After taking time off and going to a rehabilitation center, Randy White returned to the pulpit in July, vowing to restore the church "financially and spiritually."

"We're on the right track," he said Sunday. "It's been a lot of work, but our numbers are growing and things are looking very positive for us. I see great things ahead for this church."


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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