SEBRING -On Mother's Day in 2001, the Restoration Church of the Highlands had a special baptism.
It was the church's first service in its sprawling new building on the corner of Sparta Road and State Road 66, which, until today, still boasts the county's largest auditorium.
There had been expectations of growth, remembered pastor Arlan Sapp, who has been with the church since 1978.
Highlands County's population was growing, and the inter-denominational church's 32,000-square-foot building, with the 1,000-person auditorium, was ready for the growth.
Then the economic downturn took place.
The growing congregation, which once had 550 members, began to feel the sting.
"The population growth stopped," Sapp said.
The building, which sits on 43.66 acres, became too big for the church, which now has 120 members.
Financial considerations followed.
Many of the church's members are blue-collar workers, Sapp added, young families with children.
Upkeep of the building became tough.
Then the property went into foreclosure.
After four-and-a-half years of being on the market, the Restoration Center of the Highlands is going to be auctioned at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17.
The auctioneer, Randy Kincaid, who owns the Lakeland-based Randy Kincaid Auction Co., said the property is in foreclosure and the owners are hoping to salvage some equity and pay off the lender.
For Sapp, auctioning the property was the "logical step" after trying to sell it for almost five years.
In 2009, Highlands County even considered the building as a proposed law enforcement center.
Nothing came of it.
Thursday, grandfather oaks in front of the Restoration Center swayed in the breeze, and the neatly cut grass and the immaculate facade showed no outward signs of it being a distressed property.
"It's a very nice building," Sapp said." Prior to construction of our first facility, we met in the homes of various members in the Lake Placid and Sebring area. Most all of our church family donates their time in many different ways to care for one another and the church property."
The church still meets at the Restoration Center, and if the property were to be sold, they have "many options" to keep the church going, Sapp said.
It won't be a bitter-sweet end. As Sapp sees it, it's the people who go with a House of God, not a mere building.
"We have always believed the people are the church, not the buildings, and we have had no desire to impress anyone with our property. Our plans have always been to build large enough to meet the needs of our growing church household and always be able to make our facility available to the public whenever possible," he said in an email.
Meanwhile, Kincaid said a "number of people have been interested" in the auction, and he is expecting four to five bids.
Kincaid's suggested opening bid is going to $1.5 million, he said, but buyers can start a lower bid for the property, which the county has appraised for $4. 17 million.
Since the property is zoned agricultural, anyone interested in a non-agricultural-zoned use, such as residential, will have to request a rezoning, he said.
The building has meeting rooms, classrooms, a commercial kitchen and a state-of-the-art video-recording system and auditorium lighting system, Kincaid said. All the furniture, fixtures and equipment stay with the building.
A video tour on the Kincaid Auction Co. web site touts other uses: corporate headquarters, government offices, civic center, medical, assisted living, or nursing care facility
"Hopefully, another church will buy it," Kincaid said, or it could be used for another church-related function such as a retreat, he added.
For many years, the Restoration Center has been used as a polling place for Precinct 15, which at 8,463 registered voters, is the largest voting precinct in Highlands County, said the Assistant Elections Supervisor Karen Kensinger.
Finding a possible alternative is "high on our priority list," she said.
In 2004 hurricanes, the elections office moved the polling location from the Bert J. Harris Center to the Restoration Center. It's been used by voters ever since.
The size of the precinct and the number of registered voters they have to service is not the only consideration that goes into choosing a polling location.
It has to be convenient for the voters, and ADA compliant, as well, Kensinger said.
"We are researching options," she said. "We have some back-up plans (in case they can't use the Restoration Center). It's on our priority list."
For information on the auction, go to www.kincaid.com