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Legal battle continues over Heritage Tower project

MorningStar claims it received a notice that York County was ready to reinstate a lawsuit.

FORT MILL, S.C. — MorningStar Ministries leaders spoke Monday evening about their Heritage Tower plans during a York County Commission meeting.

MorningStar is the current owner of the Heritage Tower, a 21-story tower that sits empty and in disrepair on the grounds of what was once Heritage USA, a Christian theme park launched by American televangelist Jim Bakker of PTL fame.

In an email to WCNC Charlotte on Sunday, MorningStar wrote they believed York County officials are threatening to reinstate a lawsuit over the property. When WCNC Charlotte inquired with York County about the possibility of a lawsuit, a spokesperson said the county does not comment on any pending lawsuits or litigation.

Rick Joyner, CEO of MorningStar spoke before York County Commissioners asking that they immediately dismiss the lawsuit. If not Joyner says they will be forced to take action of their own. 

“We’re saying you guys have to do your job and get control of this or we’re going have a huge escalation and lawsuits far more expensive than we’ve had in the past," Joyner said.

So far we're told York County has spent up to $320,000 of taxpayer money fighting these legal battles against MorningStar, but the reason why still isn't clear.

"We have never been given an explanation why the county wants to block our finishing that building," Joyner said.

History of the Heritage Tower

Heritage Tower was initially part of Heritage USA, a Christian theme park launched by Bakker and his wife, Tammy. 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 three 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.

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.

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.

In August 2020, both parties reached a mutual agreement to dismiss all the legal back and forth.

In June of 2021, MorningStar said the tower would be renovated and transformed into a Christian retirement community. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in June 2021, but WCNC Charlotte learned from York County no building permits had been filed. A month later the county filed a new lawsuit.

RELATED: 'We basically had a Christian Disneyland in our backyard' | Hollywood shines a light on PTL Ministries

This past year, the collapse of the Christian empire was revisited on the big screens when the movie "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" premiered last fall.

Contact Jesse Pierre at jpierrepet@wcnc.com or follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Contact Briana Harper at bharper@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. 

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