MorningStar threatens to sue York County over Heritage tower

jself@heraldonline.comMarch 1, 2012 

— The owners of an incomplete Fort Mill high-rise are threatening to sue York County if county leaders don’t accept their proposal for fixing up the tower’s exterior and completing renovations.

MorningStar Ministries, which since 2007 has had plans to renovate the 21-story tower into a spiritual retirement community, will present the proposal to York County Council on Monday.

If the county rejects their offer, MorningStar Ministries will sue the county for financial damages related to the project, Rick Joyner, the ministry’s CEO and spiritual leader, said Thursday at a news conference in Fort Mill.

But the ministry hopes a lawsuit is unnecessary, Joyner said, and that a new agreement will include a new timeline for completing renovations on the tower.

“We have no intentions of ever giving up on this project,” he said.

It will take about three years to complete the $35 million tower, including getting the deposits from prospective residents needed to secure a construction loan, and getting the “lights on and people in there,” Joyner said.

But the ministry thinks the county’s demand to immediately fix the exterior to near completion is unreasonable. That would cost $6 million, he said, and the ministry would need to “start over” given that it lost financial backers.

Joyner blamed the county for spreading “false information” about the ministry regarding its agreement with the county on how and when the tower would be renovated. That information “sabotaged” the project, “grinding it to a halt,” he said.

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

Since 2004 MorningStar has been restoring buildings on the property, including the nearby PTL hotel, where the 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.

Construction at the hotel started in 2010, and about two-dozen of the 40 planned units are occupied, said David Herr, who oversees residential reservations. The tower will add 175 units.

In 2007, the county wanted to demolish the unfinished high-rise, but MorningStar came forward with a plan to renovate it and the county accepted, giving ministry leaders a deadline to show they had the finances and ability to complete the project - or face demolishing the tower.

More than two years have passed since the county claimed that the ministry failed to hold up its end of the agreement, a point the ministry still disputes.

He said he felt confident that newer members of the county council and the county attorney seem open to seeking a resolution, but added that the ministry hasn’t trusted the county manager. He also believes the county staff is “untrained in development projects of this size.”

Some residents living near the tower are pressuring the county to take action to demolish the building, arguing that aesthetic and safety concerns require immediate attention.

York County Manager Jim Baker said Thursday that the problem has always been MorningStar’s inability to prove it was financially capable of moving forward with the project and prove they could be a “good neighbor” by addressing neighbors’ concerns.

The county requested proof of financing as part of the development agreement and never received it, he said. Joyner said Thursday the county never asked.

Baker said he’s “not impressed” by the ministry’s threat.

“If you don’t have much to say, then you rattle your saber,” and if you have a legitimate proposal, you don’t threaten to sue, he said.

Suing the county at this point “would be a very foolish thing for them to do,” Baker said. “If you're trying to settle with somebody, you don't threaten them.”

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