Dilapidated Fort Mill area tower up for review again

Ministry 'excited' for March 5 meeting

jself@heraldonline.comFebruary 1, 2012 

— York County leaders will know soon whether a judge will hear an ongoing dispute over whether owners of a dilapidated Fort Mill area high-rise should fix it up or tear it down.

The county invited representatives of MorningStar Ministries, which owns the 21-story building on the former Heritage USA site, to present the York County Council and the public with a plan to improve the tower's crumbling facade and, later, renovate the building, according to county officials.

Dave Yarnes, executive vice president of MorningStar Ministries, said the group will be at the March 5 County Council meeting.

"We're very excited," Yarnes said Tuesday. "I feel like it puts the project back on track."

Yarnes said the ministry will propose "a significant process of repairing the building so it looks nice," fixing up the parking lot and taking down the fence around the tower, as well as timelines for construction and other goals, which he said he'd present at the meeting.

The County Council will decide by March 19 whether to accept the proposal, County Manager Jim Baker said.

Built by former televangelist and PTL founder Jim Bakker, the building known as Heritage Towers was part of Bakker's vision for the Christian vacation destination Heritage USA. The project fell apart in the late 1980s when Bakker left amid a scandal.

Since 2004 MorningStar has worked to restore the buildings on the property, including the PTL hotel, where the current ministry has been renovating some units. The group runs the MorningStar Fellowship Church, camps, a school and a conference center at the former Heritage USA site off U.S. 21 near the state line.

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 a deadline to show they had the finances and ability to complete the project - or face demolishing the tower.

That deadline and several extensions have passed amid more than a year of back-and-forth between the parties. County leaders echoed residents' concerns about aesthetics and safety of the property. The ministry blamed the economy for the lack of progress on the tower and argued the county's deadlines were unfair.

Then they agreed to meet with a legal mediator, a last-ditch effort to avoid going to court. The two parties met in January 2011 and then again on Monday.

After the meeting, the county offered MorningStar another chance to pitch a plan.

Details on fixing up the building's facade and parking lot and paying for the improvements are the first "milestones" county leaders will look for on March 5, said Baker, the county manager. They'll also expect a plan to complete the entire renovation, with a timeline for funding and construction.

The March 5 meeting will allow the public to view MorningStar's proposal and see the outcome of the mediation, which both parties are barred to discuss publicly. The York County Council will have to determine other ways to involve the public, whether through neighborhood meetings or public hearings, Baker said.

Waiting for progress

For Regent Park resident Kris Meacham, the first public news about the tower in about a year isn't what she'd hoped for.

"To me it looks like another stall tactic," said Meacham, who has lived near the tower for almost 14 years.

She said the extensions and breaks are unfair because most citizens wouldn't get the same breaks if they failed to meet their obligations, she said.

If the county accepts the proposal, she hopes the ministry will meet every deadline and keep every promise. But she questions whether that will happen and whether the county will "take the hard stance and say, that's enough, you need to tear the building down" if MorningStar's proposal isn't acceptable.

Critics have complained that the tower has harmed property values and made it difficult to sell, and that the tower and other unused properties on the site are dangerous.

The ministry has had incidents of trespassing on the property. In June, York County Sheriff's deputies arrested a group of teenagers and a 25-year-old man for entering the tower, according to an incident report. The group said they were just looking around.

What was "a bad area" has improved through MorningStar's renovations across the Heritage property, Yarnes said Tuesday. "The tower's the last piece."

He called the people who oppose the tower a "vocal minority" who may be "naive to how the economy is. It's a big project," he said.

'One more shot'

York County Councilman David Bowman, who represents Fort Mill, has fielded criticism and inquiries from the tower's neighbors asking when they'll see progress.

He says he sympathizes with residents but wants to ensure the county follows the appropriate steps and considers all outcomes.

"The owner of the tower has one more shot," he said. "It's not a done deal. It's got to be voted on by the full council."

If the two parties disagree, they have the right to pursue legal action, he said. "It's pretty obvious that ours would be to request demolition."

Bowman cautioned against going to court, which could take a long time and may not end in the county's favor - an outcome that would come at taxpayers' expense.

Jamie Self 803-329-4062

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