Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world's largest Christian television system, has come to the rescue of the financially troubled Holy Land Experience, a Bible-based tourist attraction near Universal Orlando.
The arrangement was more a handover than a takeover, spokesmen for both organizations said. Holy Land needed financial support and a nationwide promotional platform to remedy sagging attendance. Trinity needed land to build television-production studios for the license it recently acquired for WTGL-TV Channel 52, as well as a back lot for some of its movie production and music videos.
"Universal Studios does the same thing," said Paul Crouch Jr., son of Trinity's founder who now serves as vice president of the California-based network. "We want Holy Land to be a smaller, faith-based version of that."
In all, four members of the Crouch family, who founded and control Trinity, will join Holy Land's board of directors. They replace seven of the eight previous members. Michael Powell, the current president and chief executive officer of Holy Land, will remain on the new board.
Because Holy Land is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, there is no stock ownership. Thus, the park passes to the Crouches by virtue of their control of the board. Trinity also is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.
Beginning in 2001, Holy Land was involved in a lengthy dispute with the Orange County Property Appraiser's Office over its tax-exempt status. Last June, the Legislature passed a law specifically exempting Holy Land from property taxes.
Trinity -- which owns 34 television stations in the U.S. and has nearly 400 additional stations or affiliates around the world -- reported revenue of nearly $200 million in 2005, the latest year it filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The network reaches nearly 100 million U.S. households via broadcast, cable and satellite.
Paul Crouch Jr. said in an interview Tuesday that the agreement was "a perfect marriage" of the two ministries.
The arrangement, he said, "has brought synergy to an unprecedented level."
Trinity may move soon from its rented office space at WTGL's existing studios on Michigan Street to Holy Land.
"We could roll up a [transmitting] truck and broadcast right away," he said.
Since Trinity purchased Orlando's WTGL-Channel 52 last year for $50 million, Crouch said, the network has been shopping for local studio and production facilities. The Federal Communications Commission requires that broadcast-license holders produce original programming from local facilities.
For its part, Holy Land has been struggling with declining numbers of visitors since its 2001 opening, and a need for extensive -- and costly -- promotion and marketing. Both staff and operating hours have been cut back during the past two years.
"We have been praying for something like this," said Dan Hayden, Holy Land's interim director and former board member. "It's a joy for us that someone is coming in with the same passion for Jesus Christ."
What Trinity brings to the marriage, both sides emphasized Tuesday, is a nationwide and worldwide platform for promoting Holy Land.
As a result of the Trinity deal, Holy Land's operating debt has been wiped out, according to Powell and Crouch, who declined to reveal financial details of the arrangement.
"We want to take this ministry to a worldwide market," Crouch said. "We want to build studios on the site, upgrade the shows and program, and use the park as a 'back lot' for production."
Scenarios including building production studios in the existing parking lot, or on 10 additional acres across Vineland Road, with a pedestrian walkover made to look like an ancient Roman aqueduct.
"I'd love to have an aqueduct," Crouch said.
Crouch said the new board would consider whether to continue charging $35 for adults and $23 for children for a single-day, walk-up admission.
"Our immediate goal is more bodies coming through the turnstiles this summer," Crouch said.
The arrangement announced Tuesday represents something of a theological turnaround for Holy Land. Its founder, the Rev. Marvin Rosenthal, was a Baptist convert from Judaism. At the time Holy Land opened, he said the park would not employ Christians from the Pentecostal tradition, even as hot-dog vendors. Trinity's roots are Pentecostal, growing out of the Crouches' involvement with the Assemblies of God denomination.
Trinity has had its share of controversy, including criticism of Paul Sr. and Jan Crouch's lavish lifestyle, the network's financial dealings and the settlement of a sexual-harassment charge against Paul Sr. by a former employee in the 1990s. Trinity denied the charge but confirmed that the man had been paid $425,000 to settle the matter.
Trinity left the National Religious Broadcasters in 1991 following a yearlong ethics investigation by the trade group. Trinity is ineligible for membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a Christian watchdog group, because family members control Trinity's boards.
The network also has been criticized for naming extended-family members to manage stations and ordaining them as ministers, which qualified them for "parsonage allowance" tax breaks.