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Groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for Heritage Tower repair project in Fort Mill

MorningStar Ministries is inviting the public to look at how it's planning to expand its mission in the former PTL Tower.

FORT MILL, S.C. — MorningStar Ministries says they're ready to break ground on renovations to their 21-story tower originally built by American televangelist Jim Bakker's PTL ministry in Fort Mill.

The ministry says after more than a decade of waiting, they are hosting a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday at the Heritage Tower as part of the 2021 Partners Homecoming weekend.

According to the ministry's website, "Heritage Towers will be a close-knit residential community for active adult Christians. We envision attracting and mobilizing a body of believers who desire to engage in the most enjoyable, fruitful, and productive years of their lives." 

The tower dedication is scheduled for Saturday at 9:30 a.m. as part of a worship service. This will be open to the public.

The announcement is welcome news to neighbors who live nearby, like Jason Hamilton. 

"I get to look at it every day, so now that it's getting redone, I'll be happy to see at least a building that’s not vacant," said Hamilton, saying the crumbling building has been an eyesore for decades.

What exactly MorningStar Ministries will be revealing Saturday remains a surprise.

WCNC Charlotte reached out to a spokesperson for MorningStar wanting to hear firsthand about the plans but was told we'd have to wait until Saturday's ceremony.

WCNC Charlotte also reached out to York County. We filed a Freedom of Information Act Request requesting documents - including possible building plans, renderings, permits, or permit applications - related to MorningStar's plans. In a response to our request, the county said, "The County has not issued any permits for work or rebuilding on the Tower site.  As a result, the County does not have any renderings to provide regarding the referenced work/rebuilding."

The history behind the Heritage Tower

Heritage Tower was initially part of Heritage USA, a Christian theme park launched by Bakker. At one point, the Fort Mill theme park billed itself as the country’s third-largest theme park during its run from 1978 through 1989 according to the Washington Post. The park itself eventually closed as Bakker faced a sexual misconduct scandal and the park faced Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the late 1980s. Bakker resigned from PTL and was later convicted on federal fraud charges.

While Bakker only publicly confessed to having an affair with a woman - claims brought forward by former church secretary Jessica Hahn - he was found guilty on two dozen federal fraud counts and faced a federal prison sentence. He was originally sentenced to a 45-year prison term but saw his sentence reduced to eight years in 1992. He was released on parole in 1993. While he was still in prison, his first wife Tammy Faye Messner divorced him.

The tower, which was under construction at the time, was never completed and has never been lived in. By 1990, the Bakker's empire had crumbled, and for the last 3 decades the tower has been crumbling too.

MorningStar, which is helmed by Rick and Julie Joyner, bought part of the Heritage USA site in 2004. The site was then made into MorningStar's ministry headquarters, renamed Heritage International Ministries Conference Center.

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In 2009, Rick Joyner discussed plans for the tower with WCNC Charlotte, which included the possibility for it to become a retirement home, complete with in-house services and amenities like dental care, a pool, and a health club. Joyner told us at the time it would be aimed at seniors seeking to further their own faith-based missions later in life.

But the tower, already crumbling and in poor condition, had already dodged a date with the wrecking ball. In 2012, WCNC Charlotte reported MorningStar planned to file a lawsuit against York County if repair plans weren't accepted. The county claimed MorningStar violated a 5-year-old development agreement requiring MorningStar to fix the tower or use their own money to tear it down.

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That was when Fort Mill resident Eric Kinsinger started raising complaints. He started off using bumper stickers to spread his message to MorningStar that said: tear the tower down. Two years later, Kinsinger had allies like Jim Constanzo in the Baden Village area, who told WCNC Charlotte in 2014 other neighbors were tired of the tower, calling it an eyesore.

But by 2015, Kinsinger had enough. He used his own money to buy a billboard in a week-long campaign railing against the tower while continuing to speak out at municipal government meetings. Rick Joyner spoke with WCNC Charlotte in 2015, promising work was moving forward to complete the tower's restoration.

In 2018, the fate of the tower moved to federal court. In their lawsuit, MorningStar Ministries said religious discrimination from York County was part of the issues they faced. MorningStar said emails from county leaders painted them as the "old PTL" and made claims the ministry was trying to bilk investors of their money.

Now, as news of renovations come, Kinsinger is skeptical, saying he believes this is just, "another song and dance by MorningStar," saying he believes it would take a lot of work and a lot of money to bring the building up to code, not alone to renovate it.

"Honestly, unless they have plans and submitted plans to the building department, this is just a ceremony," said Kinsinger.