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Historic church could close soon as developer acquires property

Pastor, lawyers believe First Baptist Church of Riviera Beach should never have been taken
Posted at 6:09 PM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-06 13:56:25-04

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — A 75-year-old Baptist church near the Intracoastal Waterway may have held its last Sunday service.

An eviction notice now hangs from its front door, and its pastor said the church was stolen from the parish a decade ago.

Every Sunday for the past six months, parishioners of the First Baptist Church of Riviera Beach passed by an eviction notice, then walked to their pews and prayed for the church to stay open.

"They tell me, I have 30 days to move," said Pastor Holmer Altidore, who has preached at First Baptist for 40 years and said he’s helped hundreds of immigrants find homes and jobs in Riviera Beach.

"It’s important for the Haitian community," said Altidore, who is Haitian himself. "We help the Haitian community very well over here."

But the welcoming but well-worn church may soon shut its doors. The church defaulted on a 2011 loan to repair its leaky roof and faced $1.2 million in code violations from the city of Riviera Beach.

"It was almost like a trap," said Himburson Altidore, the son of the pastor.

Church lawyers said the terms of the deal were difficult for Altidore to understand.

"This is the pawnshop of lending," said church attorney Steve Santoro. “When the fees were totaled into the loan, the rate was over 25%."

A decade ago, the church was forced to sell the property to a Miami-based company because of its debts.

First Baptist stayed open on a month-to-month rent as leaders hoped to raise money to buy it back.

"I keep paying every month," Altidore said.

Two years ago, the owners tried to terminate the lease and evict the church. First Baptist fought the eviction in court. But a month and a half ago, Gerritt LLC, a subsidiary of a company run by billionaire developer H. Wayne Huizinga, Jr., bought the property for $1.35 million.

Why would a developer pay that for an aging church in a struggling neighborhood?

The land, so close to the Intercoastal, is valuable real estate.

"It’s near the marina," said church attorney Donovan Parker. "It’s prime property."

Parker has spent more than a year and filed several court motions to keep the church open, and to see if it can eventually return ownership to it’s congregation.

Those efforts took a blow last week when an appeals court denied a stay eviction. And this week, a new, updated eviction sign went up on the front door.

"The sign on the door, the 24 hours to move," Altidore said.

Church attorneys said that if an eviction is carried out, they will go to court to stop any demolition of the house of worship.

WPTV also spoke on background to a source close to Gerritt LLC, the Huizinga company that bought the property in February.

That source tells Contact 5 that Gerritt did not know of the church’s efforts to stay open when it bought the property, and that the purchase was a business decision.

Gerritt has acquired other properties near the Riviera Beach waterfront.

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