Jim Bakker’s theme park was like a Christian Disneyland. Here’s what happened to it.

Jim Bakker’s theme park was like a Christian Disneyland. Here’s what happened to it.
The never-finished, never-occupied 21-story tower. (Diedra Laird | Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - It was a chilly January night in 1987, and then-PTL president Jim Bakker had invited top leaders from York County to Heritage USA, his Christian theme park in Fort Mill. He wanted to share his dreams for expanding the 2,300-acre complex, which had attracted nearly six million visitors the year before with, among other things, its 52-foot water slide, Bible-based shops along a pretend Main Street and a TV studio spotlighting the talk show that starred Bakker and then-wife Tammy.

Bakker's vision, he told the leaders, included a roller coaster ride through "heaven and hell," a 30,000-seat replica of London's Crystal Palace, even a five-story, Greek-style mausoleum.

Construction had already begun by then on two other mega-projects: A sand castle with a 10-story turret that would house the world's largest Wendy's restaurant, and a high-rise hotel to be called Heritage Grand Towers. When finished, reported the Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper for tourists and those living on the PTL property, the tower's "elegantly furnished" 500 rooms would include 100 honeymoon suites "for couples who come to Heritage USA to renew their marriages."

Two months later, Bakker suddenly resigned amid financial and sexual scandal. His plans were scrapped, the ongoing construction halted. Today, three decades after Bakker's dreams gave way to a nightmarish spell of bankruptcy, lawsuits and prison, many of the magnets that once drew people to Heritage USA are long gone.

Still there: The never-finished, never-occupied 21-story tower. These days, with its rusted railings, broken windows and missing bricks, the building is considered an eyesore and a nuisance by many neighbors and York County officials.

But where others see ruins of Bakker's PTL empire, Raleigh-born Rick Joyner envisions the property as the perfect home for a multi-faceted ministry with its own dreams of becoming an all-purpose Christian center for young and old.

The 68-year-old Joyner, who has close ties to Bakker, is the founder and executive director of MorningStar Ministries, an organization that has churches, missions and schools around the world. In 2004, it bought 52 acres of the old PTL property for $1.6 million, then later bought 18 more acres.

It uses the hotel PTL did finish, the Heritage Grand, as headquarters for several of its endeavors, including MorningStar Fellowship Church, MorningStar University, a K-12 school, a publishing house, and a conference center. It kept the name "Main Street" for the building's two block-long collection of offices and eateries. About 100 people live in the building, Joyner said, some of whom have come from other countries.

MorningStar did demolish the sand castle/would-be restaurant in 2013. But Joyner said he has grand plans for the tower that Bakker never finished. If, that is, he can win or settle his longtime court fight with York County that's before the S.C. Court of Appeals. Joyner wants to turn the high-rise into a retirement center – or, as he prefers to call it, a "refirement" center for seniors.

And while Joyner told the Observer he has no interest in resurrecting Bakker's Christian version of Disneyland, he'd like to see Bakker return periodically to his old spiritual stomping grounds and preach a prophetic message to the flock at MorningStar.

Said Joyner: "He always has a powerful word for us."

A bridge from then to now

The congregation at MorningStar Fellowship Church, which holds its services in the one-time hotel's large atrium, includes a few former PTL fans who relocated to the area years ago because of the appeal of Jim and Tammy Bakker, then stayed after their fall.

Among those bridges linking then and now: Roma McCormick, who moved south from Delaware in 1981. "I came because there was something on the (Jim and Tammy) program that I saw that I felt inside, I had to be here," she said. "I liked Jim and Tammy – the way they presented everything. ... It was just beautiful, the program."

Now in her early 70s, she still recalls the fun of being at Heritage USA at its peak. She and her son lived for a time on the PTL campgrounds. She sang in the choir and volunteered to work the prayer phone lines.

"It was like a refuge place," the New York-born McCormick said.

She also remembers the end of PTL. The year the ministry closed, McCormick was working in the ice cream shop on "Main Street" at Heritage USA.

"I didn't understand a lot that was going on," she said. "I just kept praying that the truth would come out."

She heard an earful as she dished out the ice cream cones, often from people upset with the Bakkers.

"And I would just say, 'You have to pray for them. ... People make mistakes.' "

She still lives in South Carolina, and has been a happy member – and volunteer – at MorningStar Fellowship Church for 11 years.

"I enjoy meeting new people all around the world that come there," she said. "And I love to volunteer, to help people."

And McCormick's take on Bakker, who now co-hosts "The Jim Bakker Show" near Branson, Mo., with second wife Lori: "I believe the Lord has restored Jim Bakker's life. It was done. He paid the price. And then the Lord restored him."

Thankful stewards

Bakker named MorningStar's Joyner to be on his board of directors at Morningside, the Missouri complex that includes his TV show. And Joyner, a former airline pilot who has authored more than 50 books, occasionally appears as a guest on the program.

The two evangelists share a passion for Biblical prophecies, which has led them, for example, to interpret natural disasters as warnings from God.

On his show last September, Bakker said that Hurricane Harvey, which caused massive flooding in the Houston area, was God's "judgment on America." During the same show, guest Joyner said Hurricane Katrina was another case of divine comeuppance for sinners. "(It) strikes New Orleans the day they're going to have their 'Day of Decadence.' " Joyner told the audience. "Coincidence? I don't think so."

It was Bakker who floated the idea that Joyner's MorningStar Ministries should purchase what used to be the heart of the PTL property. MorningStar had communicated with Bakker during his nearly five years in federal prison for PTL-related fraud. And after Bakker was released in 1994, MorningStar was the first ministry to invite the fallen preacher to speak at one of its conferences.

"He said ... publicly at that meeting that he thought we were supposed to get the property," recalled Joyner. "And I was, 'No way! We don't want it.' "

At the time, the bulk of the PTL property was owned by a Malaysian investment group that tried for a time in the 1990s to operate the Heritage Grand under a management agreement with Radisson Hotels. This secular venture failed.

By 2004, Joyner had come around to Bakker's view that the property that once housed the PTL ministry should be acquired by MorningStar and restored as a Christian hub, with a particular emphasis on education, publishing and missions.

"We consider it an incredible privilege to be a steward of these facilities, which were built by the body of Christ through tithes and offerings," Joyner said. "Even though the negatives (of PTL) kind of got broadcast wildly, so many lives were changed, so many people were helped, at this place. ... I did not want to do this but I am so thankful I did."

Echoing Bakker himself, Joyner also said he believes that his friend was innocent of the charges that sent him to prison – namely, bilking nearly 160,000 PTL Lifetime Partners, each of whom paid $1,000 for a free room in the Heritage Grand Hotel for three nights a year for life.

Joyner said Bakker's real sin during his PTL years was mismanagement, not fraud, and that "God put him in prison to learn those lessons."

Then, speaking of both Bakker and the PTL property, with their tainted histories, Joyner added that the Bible has taught him that God has a heart for redemption and restoration.

"He doesn't throw things away, he doesn't throw people away when they mess up," Joyner said. "And we don't want to do that, either."

At 78, Bakker doesn't travel as much anymore, though he and his wife made it to Billy Graham's funeral in Charlotte this month.

"We would like to get him here more," Joyner said. "He still loves this (old PTL) property. And he still wants to see it restored."

'Tear it down'

Joyner's refusal to give up on the dilapidated 21-story tower, the tallest building in York County, has unnerved many neighbors and local officials.

"Just tear it down, let it go," said Eric Kinsinger, who lives in the Regal Manor subdivision near the tower. Three years ago, he rented billboard space on Carowinds Boulevard calling on MorningStar to "TEAR THE TOWER DOWN."

Kinsinger is still gung-ho in his anti-tower campaign. "It's very dangerous," he said. "It's fairly easy to (break) into. And from what I understand, animals and birds have been living in it since the 1980s."

He also questioned whether a structure that's more than 30 years old could meet myriad government-set building codes in 2018.

Joyner has also been tangling for years with the York County Council, which declared in 2013 that MorningStar had defaulted on a development agreement aimed at moving along renovations of the tower. In turn, MorningStar has sued York County, alleging that the council acted without proper cause, making it difficult to get the financial resources needed to finish the tower.

The county has denied the charges in the lawsuit and called the deteriorating tower a "nuisance." It won in circuit court, but MorningStar has appealed to the S.C. Court of Appeals, which is set to hear oral arguments in a month or two.

York County Manager Bill Shanahan wouldn't comment on the long-standing tower controversy because it's in the courts.

Joyner said MorningStar has bought in a new legal team in hopes of working out a settlement with the county. And the ministry continues to include "The Tower" in a video for donors that trumpets its "upcoming projects."

Joyner agreed that the tower is an eyesore – including to those at MorningStar. But he disputed claims that the tower is dangerous and structurally unsound.

"We had one of the best engineering firms in the country do thorough inspections on the tower, even x-raying the walls and floors," Joyner told the Observer. "The conclusion was that this tower was built to much higher standards than even the present code, and remains in viable shape for completion."

MorningStar's hopes of turning the tower into a residential center for seniors, Joyner said, is related to God's commandment to honor father and mother. "We absolutely have to ... make every provision for our seniors," he said. "so that those (final) years will be their best and most fruitful."

In another location on the property, but near the tower, Joyner envisions a new attraction that he calls a gateway to heaven - "an assisted living center and a hospice that is so awesome people can't wait to get there."