The building at 417 North Massachusetts Avenue 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.

Local historic preservationist and Publix heir Gregory Fancelli bought the 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.

Now, if Fancelli and businessman Stuart Simm have their way, the former church will be resurrected as a bar and event venue called The Chapel.

The proposal has already been approved by Lakeland’s Planning and Zoning Board in a unanimous vote and has the blessing of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, which also voted unanimously to allow a conditional use of the property. The City Commission on Monday held its first reading of the conditional-use plan, with a public hearing and vote scheduled for Jan. 17.

Simm, who most recently operated Federal Bar on Tennessee Street downtown, 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.

It’s a second use Simm is requesting that is giving some commissioners and residents pause. 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.

While City Commissioners Stephanie Madden, Bill Read, and Chad McLeod each had questions for Chuck Barmby, planning and transportation manager, Mayor Bill Mutz said he is “vehemently opposed” to the plan.

“As a person who worked on the (Community Redevelopment Agency board) decades ago for developing this area and watching it grow and becoming intentional, I would remain vehemently opposed personally to this idea and use and will remain so. And because of the fact that we’ve created conditional restriction for unwinding what could become a used church after the fact because of the proximity to Mirrorton and creating a bar in the middle of an area where all of a sudden we’ve blocked out what we can be doing with the rest of that block and incentivizing the right kinds development,” Mutz said.

Mutz noted that Community Redevelopment Agency partners Yard on Mass and Haus 820 are within a few blocks of The Chapel and serve the same purpose that Simm is proposing.

“But for us as designers of this corridor, to have the kind of amenities and the appearances that we want to have in that area, to me, this is a gross misuse of that facility,” Mutz said. “So that’s one person’s opinion for the record.”

The Chapel’s mid-century modern windows add to the building’s historic charm. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

 Mutz has occasionally gone against Fancelli’s wishes. It was Fancelli who spearheaded the failed “strong mayor” campaign several years ago in an attempt to reorganize the city’s government to install a mayor with executive authority. Mutz was running for mayor at the time and preferred to retain the city’s council-manager form of government where a hired manager runs the city bureaucracy instead of an elected mayor.

Mutz is also a devout Christian and said in an email to LkldNow that he wants to protect another existing church’s ability to later reconvene.

Another vacant church that has been closed for several years is located diagonally across Massachusetts Avenue.

Local Republican leader James Ring said in an email to city commissioners, which he shared with LkldNow, that he is adamantly opposed to turning a house of worship of any religion into a bar. He cited statistics showing that between 2018 and 2020, there had been 10 calls for service at Federal Bar, run by Simm. 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.

Of the 57 calls for service at Federal Bar in the last two years, there were:

  • Seven calls pertaining to fights
  • Seven calls pertaining to a disturbance
  • One call for sexual battery/assault
  • One call for assault/battery

The remaining 39 calls were for police service, security alarm, a trespasser, drunk driver, shoplifter, suspicious person, and miscellaneous crime, or for an unspecified call. Ring attributed the spike in calls to a change in Federal Bar’s business model “from a restaurant serving alcohol to a bar serving food.”

Federal Bar was third on a list of eight downtown bars in the number of police calls during the last two years:

  • Molly McHugh Pub – 78
  • Rec Room – 77
  • Federal Bar – 57
  • Linksters Taproom – 45
  • Hookah Palace – 30
  • Revival Cocktail Bar – 15
  • Lakeland Loft – 11
  • Dissent Craft Brewing – 10

Barmby noted the police calls in his report and presentation to the commissioners.

“While relatively high when compared to specialty bars such as Revival, Lakeland Loft and Dissent Craft Brewing, the overall number of calls and the types of calls are comparable to those that were received from other full-service bars in downtown, such as Linksters Taproom and Molly McHugh Pub,” Barmby wrote.

Ring works in the Lakeland office of U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Lakeland, but said his opinions were his own and not connected to the congressman. He pointed to a Facebook post on social media, showing five of Federal Bar’s bartenders dressed as sexy nuns, saying it goes against the grain of what Lakeland leaders are trying to create in terms of respect and inclusivity.

A recent Facebook post, announcing Federal Bar’s relocation and renaming. LkldNow blurred the faces after one of the people in the photo said the photo was posted to social media without their permission.

“It is my belief that the actions seen in the image attached depicting scantily dressed nuns bearing crucifixes and praying hands at the Federal Bar during the Chapel Bar kickoff event demonstrates a blatant disrespect for Christians throughout our community by purposefully mocking people of faith,” Ring wrote. “While I recognize the former church is nothing more than a desolate building, and God’s people make up the actual church, I feel the management and staff’s coordinated marketing efforts were extremely distasteful and intentionally alienated a large majority of our community. Furthermore, I do not believe their actions are in keeping with the city’s vision of supporting a vibrant, innovative, and culturally inclusive world-class community, wherein respect is both valued and demonstrated equitably.”

Simm told LkldNow that the staff at Federal Bar took the picture of their own accord when they found out where their jobs would be moving to and said it was not posted on Federal Bar’s commercial page.

“That was pulled down within a month of it coming out,” Simm said of the image and post. “That wasn’t something we found appropriate either and we took it down. Somebody screenshot it. They’re the ones making it worse by spreading it.”

Fancelli had talked about developing that property and the block to the south into a re-creation of the long-ago-demolished Hotel Thelma, a grand Florida resort that served well-to-do Northern clients during the winter season until it was torn down in 1962.

The Mirrorton apartments can be seen adjacent to The Chapel, a proposed bar and event venue. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Another issue brought up by commissioners was The Chapel’s proximity to the Mirrorton apartment complex.  The front doors of several apartments on the west side of the complex are steps away from the old church. In addition, its nearest neighbor to the south — across a vacant field — is the Lakeland Police Department headquarters.

Some of the conditions for development of the property as a bar and event space include keeping all music indoors and the prohibition of outdoor performances, whether live or recorded.

Commissioner Read, who once served on the zoning board, asked about putting a bar within 500 feet of a church. “Normally, we’d have to go through the zoning board of adjustments and appeals to get that taken care of,” Read said.

Barmby said The Chapel and the other vacant church “as the crow flies is 150 feet from door to door. If you go down and cross — if pedestrians were to cross at either Oak Street or Peachtree and come back out, from door to door, you’re looking at about 400 feet from distance. But because the building here is vacant, that separation standard would not apply at this time.”

Read countered that he didn’t want to set a precedent. “I still think that’s important,” Read said.

Both Yard on Mass and Haus 820 are near Strong Tower Church.

Madden said she was concerned about a bar being so close to a residential area. She said the Community Redevelopment Agency has been trying to revitalize that area, but continue – as the city has for decades – to combat drugs and prostitution along that corridor.

“I know that we have, that we are getting some more officers to help with that area, but my second thing is to not add anything more to a vulnerable area … to increase any kind of, you know, atmosphere or any more crime near that Mirrorton residential area,” Madden said. “I know it took 10 years to get residential downtown because of that worry that it’s not safe to live downtown, things like that.”

Finally, Madden addressed what she called the sacrilegious issue and the eyebrow-raising marketing using waitstaff dressed as nuns.

“That is very disturbing to a lot of our constituents, that it would be taking something that is, you know, a religious building and then making it into a bar,” Madden said. “So do we have precedent for something like that, where a mosque or a synagogue or a church that is an active church, has been turned into a bar?”

Barmby said he wanted to answer the question a different way.

“What’s was key for us from a zoning standpoint is just looking at the specific use and making sure it’s in compliance with the land development code and the conditional use process,” Barmby said. “And so we don’t get into how a site is marketed or how the specific business is marketed, as long as they’re operating in compliance with land development code, and the conditional use if it were approved by the commission.”

Simm said he didn’t want to comment on his plans. “Unfortunately, this is becoming an emotional thing and we don’t want to comment further until the public hearing,” Simm said.

The conditional use permit will come up for a vote at the commission’s Jan. 17 meeting, which is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. on the third floor of City Hall, 238 S. Massachusetts Ave.

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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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