The pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church had to give it one more try on Friday, Nov. 12. He knew that the Superintendent of Schools didn’t want him there and his appearance may open him and his congregation up to criticism and scorn again. After he appeared in December 2009 before the Escambia County School Board, he had to change his cell phone number because of the endless stream of hate-filled calls.
On the surface, the church’s plan was simple: purchase the abandoned, aging Brownsville Middle School in what the daily newspaper had described as a “poverty-ridden, high-crime neighborhood” and convert it into a community center.
Rev. LuTimothy May walked into the school board workshop at the J. E. Hall Center knowing that Superintendent Malcolm Thomas had rejected the church’s final offer of $500,000 and refused to bring any recommendation on it to the board. However, he owed his trustees, congregation and the community one final attempt.
It was school board member Linda Moultrie who asked that Brownsville Middle School be added as a discussion item for the workshop. Thomas had received the offer from the church in mid-October and never forwarded it to the board for review.
“The plan Friendship Missionary Baptist Church had for this property would have been beneficial to that community,” Moultrie said to open the workshop discussion. “I hoped as a board we could have helped.”
Superintendent Thomas told the board, “In December 2009, the board approved a contract for sale by the end of January with a price. The church indicated they were not going through with closing. I then made a commitment to Rev. May to try to work to make it work. I honestly thought we had a deal. The architect completed a walk-through. Every item was taken care of. We agreed on $800,000. Then three weeks ago they brought an offer that was insufficient for me to bring to the board.
“We’ve worked hard, all of us have. I thought we had an agreement. We would sell them the property if they would honor the agreement we’ve worked on for the past six months.”
THE BACK STORY
Thomas’ brief summary of the negotiations failed to include the reasons why the January sale failed.
In the summer of 2009, the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church made an initial offer of $1.4 million for Brownsville Middle School, which had been closed since 2007 and had one wing destroyed by fire. As they began to do their due diligence and arrange their financing, the church trustees realized the cost to renovate the property was higher than they initially thought.
In November 2009, Rev. May told Thomas that the church trustees were set on offering $500,000 considering the cost to renovate the school.
After what May has described as “countless hours of discussion and debate,” the trustees approved raising the offer to $800,000. Thomas instead countered with $1.02 million. When the church wouldn’t meet his price, Thomas rejected the church’s $800,000 offer and refused to put the item on the Dec. 15 board agenda.
Rev. May, his congregation and a group of citizens, which included Sheriff David Morgan and Councilwoman Diane Mack, brought the item up anyway in the public forum of that meeting. Publicly Thomas again rejected the offer, but the board asked him to please talk and negotiate with the church.
Thomas didn’t speak with Rev. May or the trustees. Instead, he went the next day to the media and announced he had made a deal with the church for $1.02 million. The church didn’t know about any such deal until the reporters began calling.
Because the trustees and Rev. May had never agreed to the $1.02 million, they had to send the school board a letter saying they were stepping away from the purchase.
A week later at the next school board meeting, Moultrie was prepared to move that the price be reduced to $800,000, but the church had an anonymous donor contribute $200,000 to meet Thomas’ asking price. The school board approved the sale and gave the church 30 days to close the deal.
Then two things happened. First, the IN was tipped off that there was a problem with ancient water pipes at the school. Through a public record request, the paper discovered the closed school’s October 2009 water bill was $3,533 for 466,783 gallons. The November 2009 bill was $10,012 for 1,370,429 gallons. While Thomas was demanding $1.02 million from the church for the property “as is,” the District failed to notify the church of the water leak.
The second event was the involvement of real estate professionals on the behalf of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. Attorney John Monroe and Gulf Coast Architectural Group stepped up to help the church do a more thorough review of the property and the documents. Monroe recommended that the normal due diligence period for an older facility like Brownsville Middle should be 90 to 180 days. Thomas refused to extend the period and the church withdrew its offer on Jan. 27.
After Thomas addressed the board at the workshop, Rev. May was allowed to speak. The tall, thin former high school basketball star stood before a “U”-shaped configuration of tables filled with over a dozen people, including the superintendent, five school board members, various department heads and their assistants. Last December, he was surrounded by supporters. On Nov. 12, May came to the meeting alone.
According to the published agenda, the young pastor should have been able to address the board at 8:30 a.m. Instead, the agenda was juggled and May had to sit for over an hour waiting for Brownsville Middle School to be discussed. While the board was discussing the state legislature, recycling and board structure and complimenting itself on what a fine job it was doing, the pastor had to step out several times to take calls from his family, congregation and his University of West Florida co-workers.
Finally when he was allowed to speak, Pastor May didn’t complain about the long wait. He didn’t dwell on the failed January negotiations. Instead he focused on the church’s final offer.
“I concur that a lot of work has been done,” said May. “Last summer I pulled myself out of this transaction to let professionals, like attorney John Monroe and Gulf Coast Architectural Group, help with this project. I wanted to remove emotions from this and have them give us recommendations.
“Our offer wasn’t done lightly. We have over 120 emails over the past six months between our professionals and school staff and attorneys. However, when we made our final offer it was rejected in less than 24 hours.”
May pointed out the School District’s withholding of six acres of the property, the recurring vandalism of the school, lack of warranties for roofing and mechanicals, the cost for getting property immediately up to code and unknowns of the leaky water pipes and asbestos removal.
“We wanted this to be a win-win,” said May as he talked about the shootings, drive-bys and fires in neighborhoods surrounding Brownsville Middle School. “We are concerned with it becoming a derelict structure.”
The School District’s real estate agent, Danny Zimmern of Scoggins III, Inc., was asked to address the board about the current commercial real estate market.
“The current real estate market obviously isn’t very good,” Zimmern said. He admitted that there have been “zero sales” in the past year that match up to a property the size of Brownsville Middle School. However, the realtor insisted there are other buyers for the school.
“We do have a lot of people interested,” Zimmern said. “Out of respect to Rev. May, they are waiting to see what the church does.”
“Let me weigh in,” Thomas said. “I gave my commitment to work with Mr. May. I thought we had an agreement. I am as guilty as anyone of rebuffing people interested in the property.”
The IN has made several attempts to discover who the potential buyers may be. Last January after the church withdrew its offer, Deputy Superintendent Norm Ross told the daily newspaper that the District had received some other inquiries from potential buyers.
When our paper interviewed Thomas in February (Independent News, “The Brownsville Fallout,” Feb. 11), the superintendent said he had several groups recently come forward with interest in the Brownsville Middle property, but he would not reveal the names.
“Buyers have asked to not be named,” he said at the time. “I do not want to ruin my sale. We would have done the same with LuTimothy’s group. We actually had a couple people approach us in the six months dealing with Friendship, but we did not talk to them.”
However, after four months, no sales offers were presented to the school board. On June 23, Escambia County School District Assistant Superintendent for Operations Shawn Dennis told the IN there were two “potential buyers” lined up for the abandoned school.
“I’ve seen one offer and expect another offer this next week,” he said. “We’ve received a verbal (from the second).”
When we requested public records about the offers, Dennis first refused to share them. After the paper pressed for them, the IN received this email from him:
“Please be advised, upon review of pertinent law I regret that I conveyed erroneous information as the exemption to public records request applies only to the contracts associated with the ‘purchase’ of property by a School Board and not the ‘sale.’ When we receive formal offers for the property they will be provided to anyone who makes an appropriate public records request. As we do not presently have a formal offer in hand we do not have a response for your present request. I anticipate one or more formal offers within the next several days.”
Our attorney pointed out to the School District that Dennis’ interpretation of the law was wrong. All offers, whether formal or informal, accepted or rejected, are public records. The District finally released the one and only offer for the property and a handful of emails. There were no emails or other written communications about the second buyer or the “several groups” that Thomas had mentioned in February.
The sole offer was from Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. It had been sent to the District on June 16, a week before the paper’s records request. The offer was for $800,000 for the entire property. The School District had rejected it.
In an email to the District’s real estate attorney, Steve Shell, Dennis wrote, “If offer is $800,000, entire property will not be sold…90 days due diligence appears excessive given the protracted exposure to the building the group has already had. I do not view this offer in its present form as a serious offer.”
Prior to the June 16 offer, there had been no serious negotiations between Thomas and the church. After that January sale fell apart, May thought the deal was dead and he was surprised to have Thomas invite him to Krispy Kreme in March to discuss the property.
At the doughnut shop, the superintendent said he would accept the $800,000 price, but the District wouldn’t include all the acreage in the transaction. Rev. May said that he made it clear that he couldn’t accept that and he didn’t think his board would agree either. After that brief casual meeting, there were no other negotiations. It appeared Thomas no longer was interested in working with the church. There was no mention of the meeting in any of the documents released to the IN.
In June, the church trustees had their attorney, John Monroe, draft the $800,000 offer for all of the land in hopes of resurrecting the negotiations. It wasn’t until after the IN public records request that the School District seemed interested in negotiating again.
Thomas didn’t tell the school board any of this at the Nov. 12 workshop. What he did say about the final $500,000 offer was “If that’s the best they can do, we reject it, but it’s not for lack of wanting to.”
Thomas said, “We cannot sell for less than value. If we do, we undercut our other students, our other schools.”
May responded, “We can’t pay $800,000 for less property with no warranties and with code enforcement requiring we deal with the burned wing. This school is over 50 years old. There are tons of things we don’t know about it.
“It’s about a community, not a building. The $500,000 offer is us putting our money where our mouths are to make a difference in the community.”
He said that he doubted if the District had any serious buyers other than the church. “We’ve had people come to us after they looked at it,” May told the board, “and say ‘You can have that dump—no way, we don’t want it.’”
Dennis interrupted and told May that what he was saying was not true. He ordered May, “Don’t refer to our schools as a ‘dump.’”
May corrected Dennis, “I didn’t call the schools a ‘dump.’ People who came to me told me that Brownsville Middle School is a dump. It is next to a dump.”
WHO IS THE SELLER
Board member Jeff Bergosh said he wished that the board could do something to help, but it was the superintendent’s decision.
School board attorney Donna Waters disagreed. “I’m not sure if that’s correct. On personnel issues, the board can only hire or fire based on his recommendations. You are in control of school property.”
In citing state statutes supporting her opinion, Waters added, “You technically may have the power, but in these tough financial times, we don’t need any litigation. I recommend you proceed with caution.”
The board was reluctant to take on Thomas on the issue. School board member Bill Slayton, a former school principal who unsuccessfully ran in 2004 against Thomas’ predecessor Jim Paul, said, “We ask the superintendent to make good faith recommendations. We rely on the superintendent to do this for us.”
NEGOTIATION NOT UNUSUAL
Dennis then walked the board through his version of the dealings with Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. He told them the building and grounds were appraised at almost $2 million sometime ago. In June 2009, the church offered $1.4 million after doing what Dennis called “haphazard due diligence.”
According to Dennis, in December 2009 the price was reduced to $1 million. In July 2010 the price was reduced to $800,000. The District reduced the acreage for sale by a third to 12.35 acres. In October 2010, the church gave the District a list of 14 items, many related to break-ins. The District completed all of them, according to Dennis. Then the church offered $500,000.
“To decrease the price by 75 percent is ludicrous,” said Dennis.
Although Zimmern alluded to the poor real estate market, he didn’t tell the board that these types of protracted real estate transactions aren’t unusual. Buyers are hard to come by, especially for commercial property, according to commercial broker DeeDee Ritchie.
“Even when you have an interested buyer,” Ritchie said. “Finding a lender willing to help finance the deal can be nearly impossible these days.”
Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones told IN that the scarcity of commercial real estate sales has made it difficult for his office to set property values.
“In 2006, we had 173 qualified commercial sales,” Jones said. “Last year we had less than 50.” He pointed out that most commercial properties are 30-35 percent vacant.
Ritchie said that it’s not unusual for the buyer and seller to go back and forth several times with offers and counteroffers, especially once they begin their due diligence. “That’s standard,” Ritchie said. “Buyers are few and far between.”
FIGHTING FOR BROWNSVILLE
May responded to Dennis’ assertion that the church’s offer was ludicrous. He said, “We have major issues with what’s going on with this building.” He talked about the $10,000 water leak that the District failed to inform the church about last year, and the lack of guarantees for the roofing and mechanical issues after being told the warranties were good.
Again Dennis questioned the truthfulness of Pastor May. “Don’t construe representations that aren’t true.”
May kept his tone non-confrontational. “We are turning a liability into a positive. We’re fighting for this community. We say we care about this community. We see murders, fires, and shootings at the front door of the school.”
“The 12.3 acres have value,” Thomas countered. “Even if we don’t consider the burned wing, there is still 85,000 square feet of building and it’s worth more than $1.50 a square foot.”
Thomas also told the board about other initiatives in the Brownsville community that he supports. “I am concerned about Brownsville,” Thomas said. “That’s why we support Reimagine Brownsville. We support the Brownsville Assembly of God Community Center that was recently opened.”
Reimagine Brownsville is a new missionary project of Doers of the Word Ministry, which is headquartered on Klondike Road in the Pine Forest area. Ironically, the School District asked Rev. May to help launch it in September.
Brownsville Community Center is the converted overflow building for Brownsville Assembly of God that the church opened in late October in order to offer day care, a basketball league, fitness classes and art programs. In July 2009, Brownsville Assembly of God requested $275,000 from Escambia County for the renovations and $150,000 for staffing for its first 24 months of operations. The item was dropped from the Board of County Commissioners’ agenda when members of the Brownsville community objected.
Thomas questioned the resources of Friendship Missionary Baptist. “The offers have gone from $1.4 million to $1 million to $800,000 to $500,000,” Thomas said. “To be honest, I’m concerned your organization can pull this off.”
After the nearly hour-long discussion, Rev. May sat down. Thomas stood firm on his position. The board would not be given an opportunity to vote on the proposal. Friendship Missionary Baptist Church’s offer would stand rejected and the negotiations halted.
The pastor had his veracity challenged by an assistant superintendent and his church’s commitment and competence questioned by the superintendent. Only Moultrie came to the defense of the pastor and the church which has been part of the community for nearly 80 years.
“Sometimes you have to look at the value and benefit more than the cost,” said Moultrie. “It will not be a failure. This is the confidence I have in Rev. May and his congregation. I have no doubt in my heart that he will succeed.”
Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and Rev. May may indeed succeed, but it won’t be at Brownsville Middle School.