God is my co-signer

A Charlotte megachurch gets down to business but will need faith to make the numbers work.
By Maggie Frank

The late-winter chill has seeped into Liberty Hall, an empty concrete and metal box big enough to hide a Wal-Mart. It's in a part of Charlotte where a few blocks separate grungy from gentrified. Not long ago, a judge shut down the motel next door because it harbored crack addicts and prostitutes. A week later, a man was stabbed to death in his apartment less than a mile away. Yet plans for mixed-use projects and high-price homes flourish in neighborhoods nearby.

For Pastor Claude R. Alexander Jr. and his flock at University Park Baptist Church, this is the land of milk and honey. Late next year, he plans to fill Liberty Hall with pews, people and passion, turning 104,000 square feet of vacant space into a 6,000-seat sanctuary. The building is one of three that make up Charlotte Merchandise Mart, once site of the Carolinas' largest wholesale apparel market and now best known for the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show. The other buildings will house a Bible college, computer classes, offices, stores and restaurants. Upon this rock of commerce, Alexander will build his new church.

Right now, he just wants to escape this oversize meat locker. With four sermons to deliver Sunday morning, he worries about the cold's effect on his voice. He suggests that his guests move someplace warmer: "Liberty is freezing." His entourage - wife Kim, his director of operations and two publicists - nod in agreement. Gotta protect that voice. Without it booming through speakers, exhorting the faithful, University Park might still resemble the congregation he took over 17 years ago. In 1990, nearly 80 years after its founding, the church had fewer than 600 members. Since then, it has grown to some 8,000 - 1,000 new ones last year alone, he says. It's a following that makes Alexander a go-to guy for civic leaders seeking support from the black community. "Most of us when we go into battle," says Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, "would like a chance to have 8,000 troops on our side."

Outgrowing the $13 million complex it moved into just six years ago, The Park Ministries Inc. bought the Merchandise Mart last fall for $11.5 million and plans to spend $25 million to renovate it. For this to work, the pastor must keep his people coming and attract hundreds more tithers each year. Facing $24 million of debt, nearly twice what it had, the ministry is trying to raise up to $20 million by 2010, plus sell two church buildings it no longer needs and turn its five-year-old for-profit arm into a real moneymaker. It must attract tenants and customers to its new digs, no easy task because when the city widened the thoroughfare in front of the Merchandise Mart 16 years ago, it cut off access to side streets.

"There's a major component here called faith," Chief Financial Officer Arthur Wilson says. "Grant you, I'm an accountant. I like numbers. But faith is what we live by, and so far so good."

Wilson's faith is in God and Alexander, a tall, thin, bespectacled 43-year-old who preaches weekly to thousands of stomping, clapping, arm-raising believers at Park Ministries' two churches. In the 2,500-seat main sanctuary on Charlotte's north side, two Jumbotron-size TVs flanking the altar project his image. He's dressed in black robes, and his voice surges through huge speakers, making ears ring. Though he starts the sermon solemn and reserved, before long he's sweating, his glasses are off, and he's pacing. He punctuates some words with an ah as in "The Lord is to be blessed when you are winning-ah and losing-ah." Blending fire and brimstone with I'm OK, You're OK, he urges listeners to forget the past and live in the present.

The collection fills six baskets, each the size of an office trash can. As the sermon reaches fever pitch, he and his followers raising hands and shouting back and forth, a woman in a lilac suit approaches the pulpit, slips a bill onto the stage and retreats to her purple-cushioned pew. Two others do the same. One shakes and cries as she returns to her seat. Park Ministries collected $10.5 million in tithes and donations last year. Though Alexander seems far from finished, an assistant climbs on stage and puts a black towel around the pastor's neck, then drapes a black, satiny robe with gold piping over his shoulders. Before long, the band begins to play, and the preacher issues the invitation. Those who respond are whisked off to pray with other ministers and to hear more about the church.

He delivered his first sermon 26 years ago, the week after he graduated from high school. Alexander grew up in Jackson, Miss., one of four children in a two-doctor family. His mother was a psychiatrist; his stepfather, a family practitioner. But all five of her brothers were preachers, and after earning a bachelor's in divinity at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Alexander enrolled at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A year before receiving his master of divinity in 1988, he was pastoring a 150-member congregation at nearby West Mifflin, Pa.

That's where he was in 1990, when University Park invited him to preach. The church was seeking a successor to James Palmer, pastor for 18 years who, after a squabble with the board of deacons, had left to start University Memorial Baptist Church, taking about 100 members with him. About that many ministers had sent résumés; Alexander's was not among them. A member who had moved from Pittsburgh had told church leaders about him. At 26, he had less experience than the board wanted, but the congregation liked what he had to say. And how he said it. "He just blew us out of the water," says Cleveland Huntley, who was on the search committee.

The church grew, mostly by word of mouth but aided by broadcasts that have made Alexander a budding evangelist. The church's radio program predates him, but the Charlotte-based Inspiration Network, which now reaches 22 million households, started airing his services in 1997. The Word Network, a Southfield, Mich.-based cable channel that targets black Christians and is available in 40 million households, began carrying them two years ago.

He travels to other churches across the country, frequently leaving Monday and returning Thursday to prepare his Sunday sermon. When members move to Charlotte, their pastors encourage them to attend University Park. The church is a regular campaign stop in races ranging from local elections to presidential bids, and its pastor's name ripples beyond religious circles. Alexander holds a minority stake in the Charlotte Bobcats pro basketball team and last year became the only clergyman on the Charlotte chamber's board of directors.

He delegates financial affairs to his able lieutenants; Director of Operations Alonzo Woods, for example, has an MBA and had been a senior project executive with IBM's global-services division. The ministry isn't above burnishing its image: Two years ago, it retained Luquire George Andrews, a local public-relations firm whose clients include the Carolina Panthers, and earlier this year it added a full-time publicist to its staff.

The idea to buy the Merchandise Mart came two years ago. Once again, the church needed room. In 2001, it had moved to an 83,000-square-foot complex about 31/2 miles from the building that had been its home since 1982, both in a historically black neighborhood. In 2003, it opened the 1,000-seat Park South church, which it plans to keep, in Pineville. By early 2005, leaders were discussing expansion. But Alexander had something more in mind.

He knew about Little Rock Baptist, the 3,200-member Detroit church that the Rev. Jim Holley pastors. Its for-profit arm runs a pharmacy and medical clinic and owns three Subway restaurant franchises. They provide funds for the ministry and jobs for members. "He is able to guarantee every student [in the church] who graduates from high school with a 2.5 GPA a four-year scholarship to college," Alexander says. "He is able to do it because they developed profit centers that help fund the ministry." Then there's Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, pastor of Faithful Central Bible Church, a 13,000-member congregation in Inglewood, Calif. In 2001, it bought The Forum - the 18,000-seat arena that was home of pro basketball's Los Angeles Lakers from 1968 to 1999 - for $22.5 million. When the congregation isn't worshipping there, it's rented for concerts and other events, which bring money into the community and saved The Forum from becoming an abandoned building in a rundown neighborhood.

"Over the past two decades, megachurches have been the engine for growth for mainline Protestant denominations and their more conservative evangelical and fundamentalist counterparts," reports A Mighty Fortress: The Social and Economic Foundations of the American Megachurch Movement, a 2005 paper written by three University of Maryland political scientists. Typically having more than 2,000 members, megachurches usually offer more than worship. "Black megachurches often create community development corporations to coordinate their community development activities, from housing assistance, to various types of commercial development, to social services like child care."

That May, Alexander was returning from Concord with Patrick Cannon, a friend and member of his church. They had been to hear Bishop Eddie L. Long preach - Alexander had been a guest speaker - and Long's 25,000-member New Missionary Baptist Church, outside Atlanta, had them thinking about University Park's expansion. What about the Merchandise Mart? A former mayor pro tem, Cannon knew the owners had been trying to sell it since 2000. Built in 1961, it had been the home of one of the region's largest wholesale apparel markets, drawing buyers for retailers from throughout the Southeast to its seasonal shows. Many tenants and showrooms moved downtown when the five-story Charlotte Apparel Mart was built in 1989. By 1996, the apparel industry's decline had changed the new building's function and its name to International Trade Center.

The Merchandise Mart soldiered on, its most profitable events now consumer and trade events, including the Southern Christmas Show and Southern Spring Home & Garden Show. Builder Dwight L. Phillips' three daughters, all past 70, were no longer interested in managing 224,000 square feet of showroom space in three buildings on 28 acres. They had received several offers, says Andy Phillips, CEO of D.L. Phillips Investment Builders, but all fell through or were too low. The family wanted $12.5 million to $13 million, he says. Cannon put Alexander in touch. Woods handled negotiations.

After remodeling, Liberty Hall will resemble University Park's main sanctuary, with its three levels of pews, raised stage, pulpit and choir loft. Independence Hall will house the ministry's missionary, community-outreach and education headquarters, which will include a Bible college and a computer lab. It will have a telemedicine center, where by closed-circuit TV doctors can examine patients at church missionary sites in Africa. Freedom Tower will house church offices, where most of the ministry's 54 employees will work, and rent out the rest of the space, now only 30% occupied. Entrepreneurs in the congregation will be encouraged to move their offices there. The Atrium at The Park - a huge lobby connecting the three buildings - will have two restaurants and a coffee shop that Park Ministries plans to own and operate.

The church will host - and collect rent from - about 125 shows and events that the Merchandise Mart has booked through the end of next year. It plans to leave Independence Hall's first floor open after that. But the largest shows will have to find another home. Within the next five years, Park Ministries hopes to open a catering company and make its recording studio profitable. It has a five-year-old, three-car limousine service, A Perfect Ride of Charlotte, which church leaders say now only brings in enough money enough to keep the vehicles gassed and insured.

Though yet to build a sizable business, the church is not naïve about commerce. When it moves next year, it will change its name to The Park, already its nickname. Its PR firm ran that and others by focus groups that included a neighborhood association, business owners and members. " 'The Park' worked because its represents the openness of a park," Woods says. "It also linked our heritage as University Park." Unlinked: Baptist and Church. Megachurches often have loose or no ties to a denomination so as not pinch the pool of potential members. And the complex will be more than just a church, Alexander notes. "We needed a name that could communicate that."

The old church building, used for outreach programs, went on the market at $2.2 million this year. Leaders won't say what they'll ask for the one they're in now, but John Culbertson, the real-estate broker who sold the Charlotte Coliseum last year, estimates it could cost up to $18 million to build a comparable complex. Park Ministries launched a fundraising campaign in April. Its goal: $18 million to $20 million by 2010.

As it bulks up its for-profit arm, the church must make sure its reach doesn't exceed the Internal Revenue Service's grasp. Wilson, Park Ministries CFO, knows what can happen if it does. He spent 15 years as an IRS agent and helped investigate PTL, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Fort Mill, S.C.-based ministry, whose evangelical organization grew to include a theme park, shops and resort hotel. It crumbled after fraud and conspiracy charges toppled Jim Bakker in the late '80s. "I do understand that once a church gets into for-profit activities, a lot of eyes are watching you," Wilson says. "I think God was just preparing me for what we are doing now."

City leaders hope the development boosts surrounding neighborhoods. So does Alexander. "There will be opportunities for jobs. There will be opportunity for training. There will be opportunity for youth activity that is positive and wholesome. There will be opportunities for families to be strengthened." In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ calls his followers salt of the earth. Alexander explains. "Salt is a preservative. It is a curative. It is a seasoning. It changes the flavor. We are to be curative, we are to be a preservative, and we are to be a seasoning. What we do and how we do it will begin to change the flavor - or enhance the flavor - of the community."

But the Bible also says, "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." The preacher is careful not to promise too much. "It is an unrealistic expectation that our presence alone is going to change this neighborhood."