Heritage tower owners will not renovate, rebuild in Fort Mill

Latest snag in long dispute disappoints York Co. leaders

jself@heraldonline.comJanuary 15, 2011 

— The owners of a blighted Fort Mill high-rise have offered to improve, but not replace, the building's crumbling façade - a long-time source of frustration for many living nearby.

MorningStar Ministries, the tower's owner, has offered some aesthetic and safety improvements hoping to satisfy neighbors' concerns and curb York County's insistence that the ministry begin renovations or demolish the tower.

Dave Yarnes, executive vice president of MorningStar Ministries, wrote in an e-mail to County Manager Jim Baker earlier this month that the proposal is "a potential remedy to any and all complaints from the surrounding community concerning the Tower's visual appearance."

Baker said he was "tremendously disappointed" by the proposal because it didn't provide a plan for renovating the aging tower's exterior, which would signal MorningStar's commitment to completing the renovations.

Now, the York County Council must decide whether to accept the proposal, which could further postpone any renovations.

Baker invited ministry officials to discuss their proposal with the County Council in a closed-door executive session when the council meets Tuesday night in York.

It's unclear whether the ministry will accept the offer to appear, Baker said.

Attempts to reach Yarnes in recent days were unsuccessful.

"Everyone would love to see them be successful," said Britt Blackwell, the council's new chairman. "But there has been doubt about if they're ever going to do what they'd planned to do."

Having not yet reviewed the proposal, which Baker sent to the council Thursday night, Councilman Chad Williams said the county's concerns need to be addressed moving forward.

"We've asked for proof of financing, we've asked for a plan, we've asked for several things," he said. "Those things that we asked for are fair requests."

An ongoing dispute

Built by former televangelist Jim Bakker, the building known as Heritage Towers was part of his vision for the Christian vacation destination Heritage USA. The project tanked in the late 1980s when Bakker left, disgraced by scandal.

In 2007, the county wanted to demolish the unfinished high-rise, but MorningStar came forward with a plan to renovate it into a spiritually-focused retirement community.

The county accepted the proposal, giving ministry leaders 180 days from the date site plans were approved to show proof they had the finances and ability to finish the project - or face demolishing the tower.

That deadline has passed, county officials said, along with several months of back-and-forth between the parties over what to do about the tower.

The ministry has blamed the economy for the lack of progress on the tower and said the county's deadline was unfair.

Following the terms of their development agreement, the county has asked for a mediator to hear the dispute. Mediation is required before going to court, and might not provide a solution, county officials have said.

With the Jan. 26 mediation date approaching, the ministry has offered a proposal, which, if accepted, would give the ministry more time to renovate the tower's interior.

The proposal

In November, MorningStar attorney Carl Epps told The Herald that the proposal would include plans to refurbish the tower and clean up the grounds.

County officials said there was talk of a new technology that could be used to reattach bricks to the exterior of the building.

MorningStar's proposal includes a series of "temporary visual aesthetic" improvements and a plan to deal with loose bricks and debris, but no information about financing renovations to the building.

The plan includes:

Securing, reattaching, or removing loose bricks "(where feasible) at the owners discretion"

Painting exposed concrete "to match brick color" in order to "temporarily conceal" it

Removing stains, graffiti and visible debris from the building's grounds, roof and exposed interior

In a letter responding to the proposal, Baker said the proposal fails to include three key items the county requested:

A plan to repair or replace the existing façade

Proof MorningStar can finance the repairs, ensuring construction would begin immediately

An updated plan for completing the building's interior.

Renovating the façade, Baker argued, would show the ministry's commitment to making "real progress" toward finishing the tower while satisfying neighbors' concerns about its appearance.

Baker called the proposal an "unfunded expression of the intent to explore minimal and purely cosmetic improvements" that "falls far short" of the county's expectations.

Blackwell said he'd rather wait until after MorningStar presents its proposal to the council to comment.

"We want to hear what they have to say and give them every fair chance in the world to make that happen," he said. "But sooner or later, you have to do what you said you're going to do.

"If we only get lip service, that's only going to go so far. We have to have some facts, some proof."

Jamie Self 803-329-4062

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