A proposal to turn a long-closed funeral home chapel into a bar and event space will come up for a City Commission vote on Tuesday, but it could hit a wall with the discovery that a church diagonally across Massachusetts Avenue still functions as a house of worship.
“The significance of that is that our alcohol beverage regulations of the land development code require a 300-foot separation between an alcohol establishment and a church,” City Attorney Palmer Davis told commissioners at their agenda study Friday morning.
The route from the church to the chapel is measured along the shortest route. Davis said he and his staff have researched it and said he found that Florida does not have jaywalking laws between two intersections with stop signs.
“In this situation, this is between two non-signalized intersections, so pedestrians can actually cross directly across the street and then go down the sidewalk, so that brings it within that 300-foot distance requirement.”
Palmer said it is approximately 200 feet.
Gregory Fancelli, an historic preservationist who owns the property where the chapel sits, questioned whether Iglesia Ni Cristo, a Filipino Church, was allowed to use the building, which had tar paper on the roof as of a week and a half ago.
A city official in the property information office said their records show the building at 412 N. Massachusetts Ave. has electricity, which means it also has a certificate of occupancy.
An online directory shows they conduct services on Wednesday evenings at 7:30 and on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
A little after 10 a.m. Saturday, singing and preaching could be heard coming from inside a meeting hall on the church property, although all doors were bolted or padlocked.
The building proposed for a bar at 417 N. Massachusetts Ave. 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.
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.
Fancelli and businessman Stuart Simm are partnering to resurrect the building 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.
Simm, who most recently operated Federal Bar on Tennessee Avenue 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.
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.
Mayor Bill Mutz noted recently 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 during a City Commission meeting last week.
Local Republican leader James Ring said in an email to city commissioners, which he shared with LkldNow, that he is adamantly opposed the 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.
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 has pointed to a Facebook post 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.
“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. “I feel the management and staff’s coordinated marketing efforts were extremely distasteful and intentionally alienated a large majority of our community.”
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 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.”
But since Simm’s statement, Ring found and shared with LkldNow several similar posts that had been on Federal Bar’s Instagram page, along with at least two videos, of what they called a “Holy Brunch” in September. The videos show the bartenders in their sexy nun costumes dancing on the bar.
In an email to the City Commission, Stuart Simm and his wife Kara addressed the photogrqaph.
“This seems to be the spark that started the fire. Unfortunately, as we are all aware, social media and an individual narrative can alter the reality of the facts,” they wrote. “The picture / video of the staff in nun Halloween costumes was taken on the last day of Federal Bar’s operation, which was the only day they were worn. This was in early September. The atmosphere was light, as they were excited and the patrons present enjoyed the day. This is not the theme / uniform or concept of The Chapel. It was unfortunately completely taken out of context. We did remove any photos within days of posting as we also realized our mistake.”
Fancelli also has plans for a vacant lot he owns between the chapel and the Lakeland Police Department headquarters. He wants to re-create a mixed-use development with a design reminiscent 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. He told the City Commission that he plans to redevelop the properties as “an entrance into downtown Lakeland” rather than the an area that has been run down for decades.
“I was initially going to remove the chapel once the time came to develop the 400 block, but four years ago, I realized the chapel is a Donovan Dean structure (the architect who designed the Southgate arch), so we’ll need to figure out how to fit it into the development project,” Fancelli told LkldNow in a Facebook message. In the email to City Commissioners, he said Dean also designed Publix’s corporate headquarters, as well as several Publix stores in central Florida.
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.
In his email to city leaders this week, Fancelli reminded them that he moved a portion of The Tudor House from Lakeland Hollingsworth to South Florida Avenue, where it became Cob & Pen, a restaurant and bar that is now a “vibrant and vital” part of the Dixieland Neighborhood. He also encouraged entrepreneurs he found at the Farmer’s Market to move into another building he renovated in Dixieland. That business is Born & Bread Bakehouse, a popular bakery with a line out the door most Saturday mornings.
Fancelli pointed out that the Community Redevlopment Agency was created 40 years ago, in part to deal with the blight along North Massachusetts. He cited several other redevelopments he has done near The Chapel.
“We did this because we firmly believe in the proper outcome of this neighborhood,” Fancelli said
In the email to commissioners to address what Simm says is a “media circus” started by Ring, the Simms defended their proposal.
“The concerns regarding proximity to residential dwellings … The new venture is more than double the distance from residential property than many existing establishments including Rec Room, Cob and Pen, Union Hall, Pink Piano, TJ Slammers to name a few,” Simm wrote. “Increase in crime … As one of only 2 establishments in Polk County we are members of the responsible vendor program associated with the Restaurant and Lodging Association (I have attached that information) which trains our staff to prevent overserving of alcohol, observing any signs of irregular behavior and reducing intoxication-related accidents and injuries.”
They also addressed Ring’s social media posts, saying they reached out to him when he first posted about The Chapel in December and met with him.
“When Mr. Ring posted initially on December 18, 2022, I messaged him on Facebook within hours to meet for coffee the next morning to discuss his misunderstanding of the concept and I also expressed the details of the concept/project over messenger,” Simm wrote. “He expressed his respect for me and my wife and agreed to meet. At the meeting, I again attempted to describe the concept, but it was clear Mr. Ring had his mind set on the illusion he had created and then added additional photos and out of context comments to posts with photographs and posts that had not existed online for over 4 months. I am surprised that Mr. Ring has never once mentioned this meeting during his social media bullying.”
On Friday, Davis said Fancelli and Simm could apply for a variance. Yard on Mass received a variance because of its location across the street from Parker Street Ministries.
“The reason why that doesn’t just blow this application up and just take it off the agenda is that our land development code does hold out a possibility of a variance for that distance requirement,” Davis said. “So, if the City Commission decides to approve this on Tuesday, you would have to nonetheless condition your approval on them getting the variance for that distance requirement. You can’t just approve it outright.”
Commissioner Mike Musick, a friend of Ring’s, asked if Simm and Fancelli were asking for the variance or if this would close the current application.
“I would think this would close it as an act of futility,” Davis said.
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