New church may come to intersection of Delaware, Madison in New Port Richey

The former home of the American-Finnish Club, located at the corner of Madison Street and Delaware Avenue, may soon host Lighthouse Baptist Church. Last week, the City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance that would provide the church a special exception to operate on the residentially zoned property.

NEW PORT RICHEY — The addition of a new church within city limits gained initial City Council approval this month, but questions were raised regarding the location’s best use.

The Lighthouse Baptist Church, previously located in Holiday, wants to relocate to New Port Richey at an existing structure at 6016 Delaware Ave. The property is on the southeast corner of Delaware Avenue and Madison Street.

Before the church can move in and welcome parishioners, though, it must be granted a special exemption through an ordinance from City Council. The property is zoned R-3, a residential designation that requires the special exception for a church to operate.

A 5,149-square-foot building sits on 0.86 acres at the site, City Manager Debbie Manns said. Built in 1950, the building has been vacant for more than 12 months. It previously housed the American-Finnish Club, which the city found did not conform to R-3 standards, either.

The city’s Development Review Committee reviewed the special exception request on May 6 and recommended approval subject to improvements made to the parking lot and perimeter landscaping.

Lighthouse Baptist Church’s congregation is reported to consist of approximately 96 members, with 60 regularly attending on Sunday. The Delaware Avenue building’s assembly area measures 1,400 square feet and seating is estimated to max out at 70. In addition to Sunday service, the church would host services on two weekday mornings.

John Fountouklis, Lighthouse Baptist Church’s pastor, said there would be no issue with modifying the property grounds and parking lot, and that other cosmetic upgrades would be expected to the interior.

“It’s an honor to be able to come and join your city,” Fountouklis said during the June 1 meeting. He wants to relocate the church because its previous Holiday location along U.S. Highway 19 was getting too congested and commercial. Fountouklis described the Delaware Avenue site as having a warm atmosphere and being “a place we can invite people to come and worship.”

While City Council eventually voted 4-0 in favor of the church’s relocation, there were questions raised pertaining to the best potential use of the location. Councilman Chopper Davis was not in attendance.

Council member Peter Altman said the area needs more locations like makerspaces or youth training sites. Those types of community centers would keep the property more regularly active, Altman said.

Fountouklis addressed Altman’s concerns and said the church isn’t going to be dormant in the area when services aren’t taking place. The pastor said the church is interested in outreach efforts for youths and others in the neighborhood.

“We do want to reach out into the neighborhood and be good neighbors,” Fountouklis said. “One of the reasons why we want to be here is we want to know the people across the street, and we want to know the kids down the street and have opportunities.”

City resident John Kane said he is not in favor of a church at the location and brought up the tax-exempt status of places of worship.

“Yes, you don’t gain the money, but you gain other things that you can’t measure in cost,” Fountouklis said in response to the church’s tax-exempt status. “You gain a stronger community is what you gain.”

Mayor Rob Marlowe reported during the meeting that a few emails and letters came in regarding the agenda item, adding that they were all negative in nature.

The second and final reading of the ordinance was scheduled for the June 15 regular meeting.

Cotee River Bike Fest coming back

The Cotee River Bike Fest is set to come back this fall and the City Council unanimously approved the special event’s alcoholic beverage application this month.

“Bottoms up, Mr. Mayor,” Altman said after the agenda item’s approval.

“I believe this is going to be our first really huge event post-COVID, so it should be exciting,” Marlowe said. The city has begun hosting smaller events, such as individual segments of the annual Chasco Fiesta, which was canceled for the second straight year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to agenda backup material, the October 8-10 event expects to attract 43,000 guests. Organizers estimate peak moments to see about 16,500 in downtown New Port Richey.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Cotee River Bike Fest, Marlowe advised checking it out. “Seriously, there are some incredible custom bikes,” he said. “You don’t have to be a motorcycle owner to appreciate them. Even if you don’t ride it’s worth it to come down and check out the bikes. They’re pretty neat.”