|By Sarah Jane Tribble, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
July 31, 2004 - FORT MILL, S.C. -- A local developer who has built subdivisions on land that once belonged to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's former Heritage USA announced plans Friday to buy the mostly vacant resort and much of the surrounding property.
Coulston Enterprises Inc. of Fort Mill said it has reached an agreement to buy 942 acres of the complex from the Malaysian concern that has owned it since 1992.
The deal, which is not final, could effectively wipe away many of the remnants of Bakker's religious theme park, which once drew 6 million people annually. Today, the forlorn cluster of buildings sits among weedy parking lots as subdivisions creep ever closer.
Company owner Earl Coulston said the property will be residential and commercial, but declined to reveal specifics, saying a "master plan" will be released in two or three weeks and reviewed by area governments.
"It's going to open up this place," Coulston said. "I think we'll become part of Charlotte when we do this."
The land Coulston has a contract to buy spans three counties and two states with 563 acres in York County and 379 acres in Lancaster and Mecklenburg counties. The land, about 15 miles south of uptown Charlotte, includes a water park, 500-room hotel and an unfinished 21-story condominium tower that's crumbling away.
The international conglomerate Malaysian United Industries, which owns the land through its subsidiary Regent Carolina Corp., bought the 2,000-plus acres out of bankruptcy court.
Regent's lawyer Marty Propst said Peyton Ding, general manager over property management and sales for Regent, authorized the statement released by Coulston Friday morning.
"Earl Coulston's track record with respect to past transactions with the company is excellent," Propst said. He said while the company has negotiated many contracts to purchase this property, this is the first time a joint statement has been released.
Propst declined to provide more details about the deal. Ding couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Under the proposed deal, Regent would continue to own the Regent Park golf course and the pyramid-shaped office building that serves as offices for Laura Ashley, maker of apparel and home furnishings. They would also keep a separate 30-acre tract on U.S. 21, Coulston said.
The old theme park has deteriorated since closing in 1997 and area leaders have long hoped a buyer would take over the deserted Christian resort. The land is zoned for retail, commercial and residential housing.
Gaylord Entertainment Co. announced an agreement to buy the entire 2,000-acre resort in 1998, but negotiations stalled when the parties reportedly couldn't agree on price. Nashville-based Gaylord owns the Grand Ole Opry and had planned to build a $200 million hotel and convention center.
About 1,000 acres of the old resort property has since been sold for housing developments and small retail centers. Coulston is the developer who spearheaded most of those deals.
The 62-year-old developer gained knowledge of the property as the general manager for Regent between 1991 and 1997. He said price has not been an issue in his negotiations with Regent.
Coulston declined to reveal the deal's value, but said he had commitment letters from investors who would help finance the purchase. He said he plans to demolish some buildings, but declined to specify which ones. "It's going to be cleaned up and revamped," he said.
Much of the resort property's development was paid for by small donations from PTL ministry fans across the world. In return for one-time donations, typically $1,000, PTL had promised its "lifetime partners" three free nights a year in the Heritage Grand Hotel or the towers for the rest of their lives.
The Christian operation unraveled in the late 1980s after federal officials began to investigate PTL's money-raising practices.
Coulston said he expects to sell a small part of the land to Rick Joyner with MorningStar Fellowship Church, which has headquarter operations in Charlotte and North Wilkesboro. MorningStar would use the land for a ministry school, he said.
Joyner, who leads MorningStar, confirmed earlier this month that he had signed a confidentiality agreement regarding the property. The international evangelical ministry has three services at its church in Charlotte every weekend with up to 2,000 people attending, he said. The nonprofit organization reports revenues between $5 million and $7 million annually, Joyner said.
In the past year, Mecklenburg County commissioner Ruth Samuelson has talked with Regent about turning some of the property into parks and to be a connector of greenways in North and South Carolina. She said other companies have had contracts with Regent, but they all seemed to fall through.
"What is unique is in the past ones, they didn't go so far as to actually issue a press release," she said.
Coulston said he has a closing date for the deal and expects it to be completed by early next year. "I've not put a piece under contract with them that I haven't closed on and that's the truth," he said.
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