Stadium progress halted by church

The city of Orlando claims it can seize land to build a stadium, but a higher power may object. Mark Matcho for ESPN

A FEW WEEKS AGO, as the first stirrings of World Cup mania rolled through this country, the city of Orlando unveiled plans for its own paean to the beautiful game: a sparkling new stadium for a new MLS team. The Orlando City Soccer Club's $110 million facility will contain 20,000 seats, dozens of luxury suites and a massive lion statue that rotates to face the pitch during matches. The city is ready to break ground, but there's one thing standing in its way: a tiny church.

Unstoppable stadium, meet immovable altar.

Orlando has acquired 19 of the 20 parcels it needs to begin construction. The final plot belongs to Faith Deliverance Temple, a nondenominational church of about 100 members. After the city failed to reach an agreement to buy it, Orlando filed an eminent domain petition to seize the property. The land, Orlando's leaders argue, will serve a public good -- so they can use their public powers to take it.

The church sits on a dreary block in Parramore, a poor, predominantly black neighborhood sandwiched between the Citrus Bowl and the Amway Center (home of the Magic). On a recent muggy Thursday night, the building's windows emit a soft glow. As rain batters the ceiling, parishioners trickle in. One of the members, Lily Harris, stands up to speak. "The enemy attacks at the weakest point," she says. "The battle is not ours -- the battle is God's." As she continues, her message sharpens. "I hope everyone's been praying for a just judge." The swaying congregation responds with murmurs of assent.

Catherine Williams, the widow of the original pastor, sits alone in a pew, hands clasped. Williams, 76, moved to Florida as a young woman, following her husband from Atlanta. They bounced between temporary worship spaces, dragging their flock with them, until they found this plot of land. Day laborers built the church in the 1990s, accepting chicken dinners and pound cakes as payment. "When God opened this door for us, it was heaven on earth," she says, her eyes tearing up. Across the street, drunks sprawl in front of peeling storefronts, bottles scattered like fallen leaves. This community is dying, Williams says, and the church is its lifeline -- but the city doesn't care. "They just want to throw us out."

The full story is more complex. In 2013, the church's leaders did offer to sell the land for $35 million (the price the city paid for part of a wealthier Methodist church down the road in 2007). They later slashed the price to $15 million, but the city refused to spend more than $4 million on a parcel valued at about $700,000. "We feel like we have been compassionate and bent over entirely backwards to make them right," says Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. But Williams' son, Jonathan, an IT manager who sings in the choir, says the church, which would collect proceeds from the sale, doesn't want to start over with that amount. "Just leave us alone. We'll stay where we are." A judge will decide the land's fate later this summer. If the city successfully condemns the property, the church will receive a settlement.

Governments have long conspired with teams to seize land in the name of sports. Arlington, Texas, ousted private owners to clear space for both the Cowboys and the Rangers; New York did the same for the Nets. Officials justify the use of eminent domain by arguing that stadiums bring jobs, tourism and revenue to the surrounding community. Never mind that those benefits are almost always overstated, according to economists.

Before it can take the church's land, Orlando must convince the judge that the stadium is a public project -- that it isn't just transferring property from one private owner to another, glitzier one. This is a tricky point of contention: Although the city will own the stadium, the soccer club will lease and develop it, reaping ticket sales for itself.

Of course, this fight isn't really about money -- it's about power. It's about the weapons we give to those who govern, trusting they'll use them to defend the common good. It's about the rights afforded to the rest of us and the promise that, if we plant roots, they'll take hold and grow.

At the end of her sermon, Harris urges patience. "We are in this together," she says. "We've got to stand still." The congregants bow their heads, praying for victory in a one-sided match.

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