The proposed event space and bar is in the foreground; the church across the street is to the left. | Barry Friedman, LkldNow

The Lakeland City Commission was schooled on scripture Tuesday morning before denying a plan to turn a long-closed funeral home chapel into a bar and event space. The vote was 5-2.

Following more than a dozen public speakers, many of whom quoted Biblical verses, Commissioner Sam Simmons made the motion to deny a conditional use permit to business owner Stuart Simm and building owner Gregory Fancelli, saying it was incompatible with the area.

Commissioners Bill Read and Mike Musick voted to allow the permit.

Voting to deny the bar/event space application were Mayor Bill Mutz and Commissioners Chad McLeod, Stephanie Madden, Sara Roberts McCarley and Sam Simmons. Commissioners Bill Read and Mike Musick favored allowing the business to operate. | Barry Friedman, LkldNow

Simm wrote in his application that the building would be used “for hosting large social and business events such as weddings, baby and bridal showers, private parties, meetings, presentations, award dinners and other similar type events” with attendance of between 15 and 100 people.

On weekends, when no special events are scheduled, the building space would be operated as a bar open to the general public, with the sale of beer, wine and liquor during Friday and Saturday evenings until 2 a.m.

Simm told commissioners before the vote Tuesday morning that the name for the business would be changed from “The Chapel” to “The Garden Room,” a move prompted by controversy raised when old social media posts surfaced showing Simm’s bartenders at the now-closed Federal Bar dressed as sexy nuns in a nod to the new business.

Stuart Simm

We called it ‘The Chapel’ because it’s an old chapel building. I didn’t realize, certainly the past month or so, what that would create in terms of public feeling … and perhaps a certain aspect of the community felt disrespected and we’re very sympathetic to that

Stuart simm, applicant

“They weren’t the most conservative costumes … The way those individuals were dressed on that day won’t happen again,” Simm said. “Apparently naming buildings is not my strong point … We called it ‘The Chapel’ because it’s an old chapel building. I didn’t realize — certainly I have in the past month or so — what that would create in terms of public feeling … and perhaps a certain aspect of the community felt disrespected and we’re very sympathetic to that.”

Issues discussed by opponents were the fact that its location at Massachusetts Avenue and Oak Street is across the street from Iglesia Ni Cristo, a functioning church, and that it was steps away from Mirrorton apartments.

City codes require a 300-foot separation between a church and a bar. The building is within 200 feet, although Simm said he was willing to move the entrance to the back door, which would place it beyond the 300-foot threshold.

There had been some question as to whether Iglesia Ni Cristo actually held worship services because that building is in disrepair and the sanctuary has tar paper for a roof. The church has a certificate of occupancy from the city and electricity. LkldNow went to the church last Saturday morning and could hear singing and preaching coming from within a side building, but all the doors were bolted or padlocked shut.

Jonathan Galang

Our main concern regarding this is just the safety of our brethren in our congregation. Because like it was mentioned earlier by others, where there is a bar, there is an occurrence of possible increase in crime or even violence.

Jonathan Galang, pastor of Iglesia Ni Cristo

Jonathan Galang, pastor of Iglesia Ni Cristo, said they were not notified about the first hearing before the City Commission. He asked the commissioners to deny the permit.

“Our congregation is very active. We do have services that are held twice a week,” Galang told commissioners. “And aside from those days, we do have other activities related to our congregation … Our main concern regarding this is just the safety of our brethren in our congregation. Because like it was mentioned earlier by others, where there is a bar, there is an occurrence of possible increase in crime or even violence.”

The building began its life in 1964 as the chapel of a funeral home and was last used as a house of worship in 2017, when the Freely Forgiven Community Church closed its doors and the building was sold.

The area along Massachusetts had been in decline for decades. But in the last five years, the city pushed to redevelop a portion along Massachusetts Avenue through its Community Redevelopment Agency, which helped open several businesses in the area. Among them are Yard on Mass, which is a bar and outdoor event space, and Haus 820 and ART/ifact Studios, an event space and art studio and gallery. They received variances from the city, which allowed them to operate near churches.

Gregory Fancelli, center, and Stuart Simm, listen to the commission’s discussion. | Barry Friedman, LkldNow

Fancelli, an historic preservationist, bought the chapel property for $800,000 in 2017 under the corporate name FURC1 LLC, and made it an immediate landmark by painting the exterior in a blue ombre. His original plan was to demolish the building to make way for a large mixed-use development consisting of apartments, shops, reataurants and bars, designed to look like the long-gone Hotel Thelma that once graced Kentucky Avenue.

But then Fancelli discovered that the chapel was designed by Donovan Dean, the architect who designed the Southgate arch, Publix corporate headquarters and several Publix stores throughout Florida. He said he is redesigning the mixed-use building to incorporate the mid-century modern church.

Fancelli, a grandson of Publix founder George Jenkins, said his projects are all self-funded. “They also need to remember that any of our projects there, unlike Mirrorton, didn’t cost the taxpayers anything.”

Mirrorton was pitched as a 305-unit upscale development, but used funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city bought the property in 2006-2007 for $10 million, then sold it to Tampa-based developer Framework Group three years ago for more than $3 million – about a $7 million loss after the real estate bubble burst.

Simm and Fancelli said Mirrorton residents want a place like their proposed event space and bar.

The proposal to convert the chapel to an event space and bar was approved by Lakeland’s Planning and Zoning Board in a unanimous vote and had the blessing of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, which also voted unanimously to allow a conditional use of the property. 

And it might have passed with little or no comment. But local Republican leader James Ring led the crusade to stop the conversion, particularly after he found the photos of the bartenders in sexy nun costumes. Some of the photos had appeared on Federal Bar’s social media pages, although Simm had originally told LkldNow that wasn’t so.

In his slideshow presented to the commission to show what the new venture would offer, Simm included a photograph of Ring with U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Lakeland, at a campaign event at Federal Bar.

Ring spoke about his motivation Tuesday morning during a 90-minute debate of the matter.

“God laid on my heart two weeks prior to my original post to say something. However, for two weeks I argued with God. I didn’t feel worthy to speak up. I argued there must be someone else. Use a pastor, someone better, someone who speaks well,” Ring told commissioners. “But one Sunday morning as I was leaving church driving down Massachusetts, I felt God’s conviction. He told me, ‘You’ll speak up on so many different issues, but you won’t speak up for me? Why even have a voice?’ And I knew he was right.”

Ring, a former Lakeland police segeant, pointed to the Federal Bar’s calls for police service, which he noted increased dramatically between 2018 and 2022. From 2018 to 2020, there had been 10 calls for service, but between 2021 and 2022, there were 57 calls – a 470% increase.  Of course, for eight and a half months during 2020, the world was on lockdown and many businesses had to close or restrict the number of patrons. Two other bars in downtown had more calls for service, according to city records.

James Ring

I urge you to consider the Federal Bar’s past history … further exhausting the already increased demand on our first responders.

james ring

Ring works in the Lakeland office of Franklin but said his opinions were his own and not connected to the congressman.

“Now I know that as distasteful as those photos that you see before you may have been, you cannot make your decision today based on protected speech,” Ring said. “Therefore, I urge you to consider the Federal Bar’s past history … further exhausting the already increased demand on our first responders. Also consider the growing body of research that shows areas with more alcohol-related businesses experience higher crime rates.”

Jonathan Allegado quoted from the Book of Daniel, telling the story of when King Belshazzar held a feast for thousands of people and used the Israelites’ religious gold and silver cups during the party, allowing himself, his noblemen and concubines to drink from them. Allegado reminded the commission that this act ended the king’s reign.

“I just ask yourself to check your heart and your own convictions,” Allegado said. “And to listen to the people — the people have spoken.”

Jarrius Haggins

To see what has happened with the mockery of the things of God, that just really hurt my heart and we as a people are petitioning you.

Jarrius haggins

Jarrius Haggins said the photographs posted to Federal Bar’s social media pages were disturbing.

“To see what has happened with the mockery of the things of God, that just really hurt my heart and we as a people are petitioning you,” Haggins said, retelling the story of Esther petitioning the King on behalf of the Israelites. “He said, ‘Don’t think if you turn a blind eye, you will not escape what’s going to happen. You might think it’s not affecting you personally. Not yet.’ But if we do all these things to infringe on the things of God has start small. The devil has learned to never do anything big. He starts small to creep in to get people off guard. And then when it gets too big, we’re trying to play catch up. So right now, as the body of Christ, we’re partitioning you. Our standard is the Bible. That’s our standard – not a person’s opinion.”

Jerry Kimmel asked if the proposed business improves or denigrates the city and reminded the commissioners that God gives authority.

“I’ve always considered Lakeland to be a godly place to live and raise my family, a place that I could proudly call home,” Kimmel said. “So to openly and deliberately conduct a business that targets and mocks religious images and Christians as a whole, to me is deplorable. Proverbs 3:35 says, ‘Fools fill their lives with disgrace. But glory and honor rest upon the wise.’ ”

David Dickey

Local photographer David Dickey lives in Lake Mirror Tower and said he frequently walks downtown to grab a drink.

“I enjoy that, being able to walk to places like Revival or Frescos, Linksters,” Dickey said. “I can have a drink and not worry about how it affects my driving – because I don’t have to drive.”

And Dickey also pulled out a Bible verse.

“This has been presented to you guys in a way to really pull on your moral compass,” Dickey said. “In Matthew 22, Jesus said, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ I just want to remind you guys that you’re playing the role of Caesar. This is a state problem. This is a municipality problem … I don’t understand the statutes that states that a place that serves alcohol can be so many feet from church building. I don’t understand that. And I know it’s not up for debate, but how many places that serve alcohol do you have to drive past in order to get to your church on Sunday morning? And does that affect you?” 

Several commissioners said they struggled with their decision and called themselves Christians and devout.

Mike Musick

Mike Musick is a friend of both Ring’s and Fancelli’s – who both worked on Musick’s campaign – and said it has been difficult for him.

“I am a man of faith, and I’ve struggled listening to some of these comments,” Musick said. “If we decide to say that the compatibility is the reason that we’re going to deny it, then that’s the reasons to deny it. But this gentleman has a license for serving what he’s going to serve so if that’s not here, is it going to be somewhere else? Then we have to ask the question. ‘Are we going to fight it at the next level?’ … Is that what we’re saying? Because, at the end of the day, that’s not something that is our job. This is a license coming from the state.”

Bill Read

Commissioner Bill Read said they should set aside personal feelings because, as someone who served on the Zoning Board of Adjustment for several years, he believes it is compatible.

“They made a little blunder at their outfits … regardless of if somebody has a male bartender dressed up like Jesus Christ, you can’t do anything about it — it’s not kosher per se,” Read said.  “In reference to compatibility I think the property is compatible. It’s a natural transition from multi-family to single family.”

And Read – who is known to enjoy a good bourbon – said the city may very well face a lawsuit over this.

“If we deny this, there is a very good chance that we’re going to spend a lot of tax dollars if they protest and come back and want to sue the city and there’s a very good chance we would lose,” Read said. “I think if the name had not been that way – if it had been ‘The Gathering’ to begin with, the multitude of crowds would not be here today.”

Following their plan’s defeat, Simm and Fancelli spoke to reporters in the hallway.  Both plan to revisit the issue.

“My concern is that they’ve really gone with the emotional side of things,” Simm said. “I really appreciated Commissioner Read, Commission Musick being very, very level-headed and what they had to say on both sides of things. Emotion in a place like that — it’s not the place …  It’s whether we check the right boxes, we’re doing the right thing for Lakeland, whether we were going to progress and be respectful for the community and bringing additional tax dollars.”

Simm said he “wasn’t keen” to keep his business in Lakeland.

“We’ve already gone through four months of pushing this through and green lighted and everything and then it gets stopped right at the end,” he said. “So I will be speaking to my team regarding how we go forward from this. There are a few things further, as I’m sure you know, is legal counsel and people that are very smart. That’s not an end. So we’ll see where we go from here.”

Fancelli said he is still planning a mixed-use development on the property and incorporating the former funeral home chapel.

“They said no now, but sometimes it takes three nos to get a yes — or three yeses in this case to get to a no — and get it approved,” Fancelli said, adding that his family has contributed a great deal of money to local churches and private religious schools. “So we’re going to basically look at what came out of the meeting today. I know that business owners have legal counsel, so they’ll see what parameters need to be met and dealt with in order to get this approval.”

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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