Brooklyn Heights Press

Thursday, Feb. 6, 1997


Witnesses Buy Potential Florida Convention Site in Palm Beach

Land Has Auditorium

By Dennis Holt

Long-time residents of Brooklyn Heights will recall their uneasiness, and sometimes vocal, opposition, in past times when the Jehovah's Witnesses launched a major acquisition campaign, most of it behind closed doors, to acquire significant properties in the area.

When the dust settled, if indeed it has, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society owns at least 36 properties in the Heights worth $190 million a year and a half ago. The city estimates that it "loses" at least $10 million in tax revenues on these properties because the Witnesses are a religious entity.

The last major attempt by the Witnesses to construct a major project affecting the Heights was a proposal to build a large dormitory that would have affected the view of the Brooklyn Bridge. This was turned away, and the dormitory now appears on the corner of Sands and Jay Streets in Vinegar Hill, built as of right. (?) It a handsome building that dominates the Brooklyn skyline when one is driving on the FDR drive.

In recent years, the Witnesses have turned their attention to Vinegar Hill, which consists of a lot of empty parcels or abandoned buildings, and have acquired at least one large site and a smaller one.

But they have also turned their attention far from Brooklyn, in one case to balmy Palm Beach, Florida. This newspaper has learned that the Watchtower Society has acquired 74 acres near the downtown area at a cost of $12.2 million. What they purchased is the city's auditorium and baseball spring training complex.

As is the case usually with the Witnesses, this acquisition makes inherently good sense for them. They held 12 conventions in the Palm Beach Area last June, July and August, and have held meetings in the 6,000-seat auditorium in past years. The Witnesses know that there is a plan afoot to build a new, modern stadium for Disney on Ice, Beachdogs basketball games and other special events now held at the 30-year old auditorium.

If the county walks away from the current auditorium, the Witnesses may not have had a place to meet in the future, so it is best to secure it. As is also usually the case with the Witnesses, the city admitted that negotiations with the Witnesses were held behind closed doors, even excluding the city comnwissioners who have a final say in such matters down there.

 What may be unusual with the Witnesses in this case are reports that they seem to be willing to lease or even sell about half of the site for housing, shops and offices.

 According to the Palm Beach Post, the city's daily newspaper, a man named Gerald Gtizzle, the Watchtower's convention manager, said, "Different buyers will be invited to look at the various parcels of the property."

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