Romar Beach Baptist Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey
Dr. Paul Smith wasn't ready to retire, but after suffering a third heart attack, the traveling evangelist realized it was time to slow down. He and his wife settled in a condominium in Orange Beach, Alabama, where Dr. Smith planned to just "prop up my feet and look at the Gulf."
But there was something calling the lifelong minister. He heard it every time he drove down the beachfront highway lined with condominiums and restaurants.
"The church that wasn't there would just jump out at me," he said.
And, then he started thinking, maybe that's where he belonged.
Dr. Smith contacted his brother, a retired missionary, and together, they reached out to the Baldwin County Baptist association. Then he sent a letter to everyone in the zip code saying he wanted to start a church. If anyone was interested, they could join him the next Sunday at a local restaurant.
"Thirty-six people showed up at that restaurant," he said. "That was 16 years ago."
Membership consisted of locals as well as snowbirds who travel South during the winter season. Vacationers also stopped by. The first few years, the church flourished at the restaurant until the restaurant was sold to new owners who, Dr. Smith said, "invited us to leave. They had big plans and the church was not included in those plans."
At first, the members weren't sure what to do. Then, Dr. Smith heard the call again. The church that wasn't there along the coastline was calling him again. And this time, he looked for it. There, among the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico in an area called Romar Beach, Dr. Smith found a house for sale. The only problem was that the asking price was a bit too steep for the small membership to handle.
"This was 1997, and they were asking $800,000," he said. "So I asked if they would take $500,000. They said no, but they'd take $600,000. So I asked if we could split the difference, and we bought it for $550,000."
Once the house was theirs, Dr. Smith said they tore down walls to create a 500-seat auditorium where services could be held. The church grew in its new home on the coast until September 2004, when the 10th most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded swept over the Alabama Gulf Coast causing significant damage to everything in its path. Hurricane Ivan completely wiped out Romar Beach Baptist Church, leaving only three hymnals and a cross, which was found in a tree down the beach.
"Ivan had devastated Orange Beach," Dr. Smith said. "We were without a building for four years. We met where we could."
With no building left to worship in, membership dwindled to 40. Despite its size, it was a devoted group. The members voted to rebuild the church on their prime piece of beachfront real estate.
If there was one thing that the new church had to have, it was strength to withstand brutal storms and harsh tropical saltwater. Cost would also be an issue. Dr. Smith knew the church could lure groups to help build the church's interior, but for the exterior, he relied on the expertise of Hyperion Construction.
The project began as a $4 million job, but because of new, tougher building standards, the price tag topped $7 million. But it was worth it. The church stands five stories tall with parking on the first two levels. The second level also houses an auditorium that seats 400. The third story houses the fellowship hall with a commercial kitchen and a nursery. The fourth floor holds church offices and Sunday school rooms. And the top floor is housing. Dorm rooms and two VIP suites provide enough space to sleep 112 people. There is also a prayer room at the base of the steeple that provides breathtaking views of the city.
Volunteer groups from throughout the Southeast were eager to travel to the Gulf Coast and help build out the church's interior, easing the financial crush. The church shows its thanks with a Wall of Fame that has the names of all the individuals and groups who came to help. By June 2008, the church was open for business.
Most importantly, the building is strong. Built with steel beams and concrete with a waterproof coating and concrete pilings that dig 78 feet into the ground, the church is "so over designed," Dr. Smith said.
The congregation has grown to about 100 fulltime members and about 300 associate members, consisting of snowbirds and vacationers. The site is also marketed as a year-round retreat venue for church groups. The dorms are booked solid each June and July.
Hyperion Construction is located in Elberta, Alabama.