Property’s history tied to Bishop Eddie Long scandals

by Robin Kemp

The Jonesboro City Council voted 4-3 to deny a conditional use permit to a large church that had hoped to open a new location in the old Hoops N Fitness on Tara Boulevard. City staff had recommended approval with conditions.

Tabernacle of Praise Church International, which has locations in McDonough and Jonesboro, conducts several ministries include feeding homeless people and those living in extended-stay motels, health and wellness, and social justice. They also have working relationships with Clayton County Public Schools and the Jonesboro Housing Authority.

The property Tabernacle of Praise had sought to redevelop once belonged to the late Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.

In 2007, Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, along with businessman Marion Heflin and Frederick Folson of Strategic Community Initiatives, had bought the gym through West Indies Holding Company from Danny Wright and J.D. Rock Enterprises, with $2 million from a bank that later failed.

In 2010, Long was sued by eventually reached a settlement with State Bank and Trust, which had acquired West Indies Bank. (West Indies Bank does not appear on the FDIC’s list of failed banks.) The property was to have been maintained as part of the settlement.

That same year, four young men–three from metro Atlanta and one from Charlotte, NC–sued Long, saying he had used a youth program to groom them for sexual encounters. Long, who had frequently spoken out against gays in the military, LGBTQ rights, and gay marriage, and ran a “conversion therapy” enterprise settled out of court in 2011 for an undisclosed sum.

In 2013, a man was found dead at the former gym after he apparently fell while trying to steal copper from the building, WSB reported.

In 2014, State Bank and Trust sold the property to CB Property Management and Development Company for $450,000.

Long died in 2017.

The former Hoops N Fitness on Tara Blvd., a 6.67-acre property, has been empty for about a decade since Bishop Eddie Long bought it. Long, known for his extreme homophobic rhetoric, defaulted amid allegations he had groomed young men as sex partners. Long settled those cases, as well as the real estate case, out of court. (Photo: Georgia MLS)

On March 1, Millennials Capital Trust LLC of Roswell sold the property to Cathy Morris Fields of Wayndanch, NY, who was named along with Tabernacle of Praise on the conditional use request.

According to a memo from City Manager Ricky Clark, the church asked the city to verify zoning at the location last month: “The building has been vacant for a number of years, and most recently had a U-Haul truck facility turned down by Council several years ago. Due to its length of vacancy, the building needs significant renovations / upgrades. The applicant leads Tabernacle of Praise Church International, a large, well-established church with several campuses in the metro Atlanta area. (Note: the applicant has put 4 adjacent parcels on the application, all owned by the same owner. The 2 advertised parcels [13242D A016 and 13242D A022] were the ones with the buildings on them. If approved, staff recommends combining all 4 parcels into one parcel.)”

Read the application packet and supporting documents:

Although the property is next to a liquor store and a gas station that sells beer and wine, it is more than the 100 feet minimum distance required by code. However, the parking lot was about 200 spaces short of the 350 required, which would have required a full variance hearing.

One of the nine recommended conditions was that “Either a variance for deficient parking numbers shall be approved prior to issuance of a building permit, or the rear parcel shall provide a new parking lot to fulfill parking requirements, per City standards.”

In other words, the parking was doable one way or another.

“Nearly all of the approval conditions can be met,” the memo read. “The parking situation will have to be dealt with.
The building will also need significant renovation and possibly a sprinkler system. Per the Future Land
Development Map, the property is within the ‘Tara Boulevard Corridor’, which allows for a wide variety of uses,
including institutional uses. A large church at the property could have economic benefit to the City, in terms of
customers for local restaurants, etc. With the building remaining vacant for so long, there is a point where the
property may be no longer viable in its current state if it continues to remain empty.”

Members and supporters of Tabernacle of Praise International stand during Monday’s Jonesboro City Council meeting to show their support for a conditional use permit request that would have allowed the church to move into the old Hoops N Fitness on Tara Blvd. The request failed 4-3. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Council chambers were packed, for the first time in a long time, with members speaking in favor of the permit for 8557 Tara Boulevard.

The overwhelming majority of those present at the meeting were backers of the church. When they stood up, they made their numbers known.

Several people spoke in favor of the conditional use during the public hearing. Pastor Timothy McBride also presented several glowing letters of support from Calvary Refuge Center (where the church serves meals to homeless families in Forest Park), State Sen. Gail Davenport, Kaiser Permanente (which thanked its neighbor for feeding health care workers doing mass vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic), and the Housing Authority of the City of Jonesboro (which thanked the church for supporting local residents).

Danielle Crow, a member of the church, said, “We want to be a blessing to this community, just as Mayor Day said in the invocation. And so I stand here in support of the conditional application for the conditional use of this property.”

Madalyn Wallace, assistant principal of Mt. Zion High School, told the council, “Tabernacle has been a partner in education with my school…They have done many things in our community. They have supported our students, our staff, our parents. They have fed them, they have been spiritual advisors towards our students, they have been just a blessing in the community….I think the support of this rezoning is very important, and very, very important to the community. They will be a blessing to the community, and as Mt. Zion High School, we support that.”

Clayton County DCFS Board Chairman Charlton Bivins asks the Jonesboro City Council to approve a conditional use permit for Tabernacle of Praise Church International to open a church in the old Hoops N Fitness at 8557 Tara Blvd. The request failed 4-3. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Charlton Bivins, who said he was “wearing the hat of Clayton County Department of Children and Family Services chairman,” told the council “On behalf of DFCS, understand what Pastor McBride and his staff and his congregation are doing for over 20,000 children in Clayton County. When we call in need, because Lord knows the state doesn’t give DCFS all that they need, guess who fills the gap? Tabernacle of Praise. Not that other churches don’t from time to time, but we have never gotten a no. Anything that we can do when it comes to infusing services from a spiritual standpoint into a physical standpoint, for children, for all of those that are in need, that church has done it. If expanding that church is going to expand the human services that they are offering, we are thumbs up for and I hope that we can get a vote from you all on this.” [Transparency note: Bivins is a member of The Clayton Crescent Board of Trust. The Clayton Crescent takes no position on this or any other permit request.]

Akira Clay, assistant to the director at DFCS, said, “We would be honored to support Tabernacle of Praise, and we stand by our chair, Mr. Bivins, in saying that his church has fulfilled every need that we have asked, ever since 2019 which was the establishment of our partnership, they have come in, donated car seats, personal hygiene items to families in need. Some of these items we couldn’t get immediately because of state funding. Our staff are sometimes overwhelmed with sending requests for funding to the state, and they are always there to pick up right then and there, any time of the day, where we can’t, where we fall short. So we definitely support anything that Tabernacle of Praise requests.”

Quinn Howard, also a member of the board, said “I concur.”

Before councilmembers voted on the request, they heard a presentation on city finances and held an extended discussion on the homestead exemption, loss of the jet fuel sales tax, COVID-19 business assistance, the many city services that Jonesboro residents have enjoyed for little or no cost for many years, and negotiated the proposed 8.0 millage rate increase down to 7.0. (We’ll have more in a separate story.) They also voted to reduce Tree Fund payments by Hearthside Jonesboro’s developer by 10%.

When the time came to vote on the conditional use permit, councilmembers were not on board. Councilwoman Sebo-Hand made a motion to deny the permit, which Councilman Ed Wise seconded.

Councilwoman Dr. Donya Sartor, who was on a choppy phone connection, asked what the current tax payment was on the property.

“I wouldn’t think a lot, since there’s no business there now,” Day said. “But if there were a commercial business there, it would be a different story….If you had a commercial business there, it would generate a lot of income, but the church itself is not taxable. If they bought the property, I guess. I don’t know if the church is buying the property or what they’re doing.”

“I think this application is for the church to actually acquire the property, I think is what we understand,” Clark said. “The taxes are predicated based upon the building, the property taxes. Other than that, you have an occupational tax. Right now, we’re not collecting any occupational tax, and the taxable amount, I think, is between $1200 and $1300 a year.”

Sartor asked, “Are they purchasing the building, or will they lease the building for a period of time?”

“No, my understanding is that the applicant is acquiring the property,” Clark said. “They’re seeking to purchase the property based upon their desire to rehab the entire structure to make it for their purpose, interior and exterior.”

Sartor asked, “Is it appropriate, Mayor Day? Have we had any other business inquiries in the last five or six years with regard to the property?”

“We have, yes,” Day replied.

“Okay,” Sartor said.

Sebo-Hand said, “Mayor Day, I would like to say, in response to my motion, is that I greatly appreciate all the work that the church is doing. I just don’t think that it’s the right fit on Tara Boulevard. I weighed my decision, I thought about it a lot, so I just wanted to make sure that they understood that I’m making my decision to deny it and my request based on that, and I appreciate all your good work, but I just don’t think it’s the right fit for the city. That’s why I’m voting the way I am.”

(L-R): Jonesboro City Councilmembers Ed Wise, Billy Powell, and Pat Sebo-Hand vote to deny a conditional use permit for Tabernacle of Praise Church International to open a church in the old Hoops N Fitness at 8557 Tara Blvd. Voting against the denial were Councilmembers Dr. Donya Sartor, Bobby Lester, and Tracey Messick. Mayor Joy Day cast the deciding vote, denying the request 4-3. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Councilwoman Tracey Messick asked, “Last week, there was some discussion about the parking. Did we ever get a good diagram of how they would resolve the parking issue?”

Clark said the parking space requirement is “based on the maximum number of people. And if we check multiple businesses there, that could be a concern there, but we did not receive anything additionally relative to parking.”

Sebo-Hand, Wise, and Powell voted to deny the permit. Lester, Messick, and Sartor voted against the denial. Day cast the deciding vote to deny the permit. Sartor asked for a roll call vote, which was done.

Members and supporters of Tabernacle of Praise Church International packed the chambers at Jonesboro’s City Council meeting October 11, 2021. The council voted 4-3 to deny a conditional use permit that would have allowed the church to renovate the old Hoops aNFitness on Tara Blvd. and turn it into a permanent church. They have been meeting in a building next to Kaiser Permanente. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Church members said they were disappointed but undeterred, and expressed dismay that the council would deny their request in favor of some future business.

“I was hoping that they would pass this.” said John Funny, Jr. “It would bring a lot of positivity to the community, also try to bring some revenue to the community. You have a dilapidated property that’ s been there for years and we’re trying to bring positivity to the community. Plain and simple.”

He added, “I’m not a resident of Jonesboro so I can’t really speak for the citizens here, and also the businesses, but that’s something more for the citizens to come and defend and agree with or oppose.”

McBride said, “I’m very disappointed. It’s amazing that we choose business over what’s going to help our community. It’s all about money, it’s about taxes and isn’t about helping our community, which we have demonstrated throughout the tenure of our–when you have so many, when you have the state senator, when you have businesses, people saying that we need this in our community. Tara Boulevard needs this. We need a place of hope–a place that nobody has brought in the last five, six years. No business wants it. We want it. We can afford it. We’re ready to do it. And nobody wants to help us, so…But we’re not done. We believe God called us to this city and if a door shuts, that means a better one is about to open up.”

Bivins said, “I understand the variances, the ordinances, but I don’t understand [the vote.] One of the greatest things that elected officials, law enforcers, have is they have the ability or the right to–they have discretion. And discretion for good things should have prevailed. And it didn’t. And I’m a little disappointed. But I understand. But when you’re doing good in the community to that degree, like I told him, God shut one door and another one always opens.”

For now, the old Hoops Fitness building stands empty.

“I was shocked. I was a little shocked,” Bivins said. “But you still now have this dilapidated building. What you gonna do? Who can get that passed? Who can be in a position to do whatever it is they feel needs to be done? I don’t know.”

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