The pastor of a Fort Myers Beach church leveled by Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28 is hoping to partner with a developer to rebuild.
Shawn Critser, pastor at Beach Baptist Church, will barter part of the church campus’ 3.15 acres to S.J. Collins Enterprises, an Atlanta-based developer planning to build 40 condo units.
In return, S.J. Collins will build a new church accommodating about 500 people. The developer also is planning to build 30 workforce housing units that would be donated to the church.
The developer would need to build up to eight stories high to create the density needed to make the financials work, Critser said.
From 3 to 6 p.m. Thursday, a public workshop will be held at the church site, 130 Connecticut St., to share and discuss the plans.
All five buildings on the church campus were destroyed by the storm, with all but two buildings completely washing away.
“Everybody wants the workforce housing,” Critser said, “but the pushback is the height. It would be six stories above the parking deck. The price of doing business is vertical now.”
The developer would need rezoning from the Town of Fort Myers Beach to proceed, which is why the workshops are taking place – to be open about the plans and to garner support for building five stories above the current maximum of three stories at that location.
Aaron Fortner, a city planner, has been involved with envisioning the project on behalf of S.J. Collins.
“In this case, in this project, I was trying to figure out, can we put the church back and put them in position for the next 100 years of their life?” Fortner said. “Can we do it where they don’t have to raise money and will be debt-free after the project is done? That’s the starting point.
“This is the church’s land. There’s nothing here that won’t be in their best interests. You have to start with what’s best for them. What’s best for them is to rebuild and be debt-free.
“The second thing is, this church really cares about workforce housing. They would own it. The developer would build it and then be giving it back to the church. We started with that.”
S.J. Collins has developed shopping centers throughout the southeast, including Whole Foods Market and surrounding Daniels Marketplace off Daniels Parkway in south Fort Myers.
“His company develops all the Whole Foods properties across the country,” Critser said of Steve Collins, who founded S.J. Collins in 2007. The company could not be reached for comment. “He is getting into the church world with groups that help bring churches back. For a lot of reasons, churches are in decline. This guy will help develop a multiuse facility.”
The church has been cooking and distributing about 100 hot meals per day for islanders in need and was preparing about five times that amount in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“We’re a community-based church,” Critser said. “We’re not just a church you go to on Sundays.”
Although the storm wrecked the church’s buildings, it could not stop the remaining church members’ resiliency, Critser said.
“We had 450 people who were the core membership,” he said. “After the hurricane, about 200 of those folks were islanders. That number was completely decimated. The other 200 were snowbirds. A lot of them were used to being online members. We retained maybe 80% of that number. That’s why the plan that we came up with was the most viable solution. This developer would build us a church and some workforce housing in exchange for a piece of property that he could put the condo units on.”
Critser and Fortner remain hopeful the project would work.
“With an urban infill site like this, it’s not like we have a big forest somewhere,” Fortner said. “We’re fitting this into the fabric of the town. This is an exploration process. We’re exploring this idea. We understand it may not work. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.
“We think it’s good for the church. We think it would be good for 40 condos. At this point in the process, you’re just trying to figure it out.”