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T.J. Aulds

TEXAS CITY – Less than a month since deciding to sell its landmark Ninth Avenue campus to the school district, members of First Baptist Church Texas City approved yet another big move.

The 110-year-old congregation will be moving into what was the Dillard’s store at Mall of the Mainland, pastor Rev. Robert Miller said. Church members on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a plan to purchase the 150,000-square-foot building that’s been for the most part vacant since 2008.

If all goes as planned, the 1,000-member congregation will move into its new home within six months, Miller said.

We feel blessed to get the building,” Miller said.

Last month, members of the church approved selling its main campus to the Texas City school district, which plans to build a vocational training center on the site.

Initially the plan was for First Baptist to move to its campus on Interstate 45. That location presented its own challenges, Miller said.

“There were a lot of concerns about accessibility at the I-45 location,” Miller said. “It does present some challenges. Those driving to the campus on I-45 have to take the interstate feeder road or cut through a neighborhood to get to the campus. Return trips to Texas City require going through the neighborhood or making a U-turn at Holland Road about a mile north of the campus.”

The day after The Daily News reported that church members approved selling its main campus to Texas City ISD, Mall of the Mainland developer Jerome Karam called Miller.

“That location really addressed the accessibility issue,” Miller said.

There’s ample parking, easier access to and from the site and better ability to draw attendees from other communities. That allows the church to become a regional vs. Texas City-centric congregation.

“We really want to always be tied to Texas City,” Miller said. “The move will allow us to move from being a local church to a regional church.”

Between the two campuses about 500 people attend services at First Baptist each Sunday, Miller said. Even before the move there’s been an increase in attendance at the I-45 campus.

“We are already seeing 40 to 50 more people attending services at the I-45 campus since it was reported in (The Daily News) we were selling the Ninth Avenue property,” Miller said. “We now have people from La Marque, Santa Fe, Dickinson and even Galveston coming to check us out.”

Miller anticipates that growth trend to continue once First Baptist moves into the Mall of the Mainland location.

Miller said Karam also “gifted” a portion of the sale price to the church to make the move possible.

“Without him doing that there was no way we could have afforded the building,” he said. Miller did not divulge the final purchase price of the building.

Miller said the church also will look to sell its Interstate 45 location.

Karam finalized the purchase of the 415,000-square foot mall in March.

He already opened a massive World’s Gym in what had been Macy’s and got Palais Royal to agree to move into the former Macy’s location as well.

Soon after, he acquired the Dillard’s building.

Dillard’s closed the store after Hurricane Ike made landfall in 2008. At the time, the company claimed storm damage was too extensive to continue operations at the failing Mall of the Mainland location.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency took advantage of the vacant space and moved its Ike recovery center into the former retail store. The federal government also spent thousands of dollars to fix storm damage and make other improvements to the location.

The building was “in pretty good shape,” Miller said. “It actually was in better shape than we had anticipated.”

The last service at First Baptist Church’s main campus will be June 21, Miller said. The congregation will then hold all services at the I-45 campus until the Mall of the Mainland site can be built out.