From Heritage USA to mixed-use property

Tammy Faye Messner‘s remains have been buried. So, too, have Jerry Falwell‘s.

And, slowly the remnants of PTL are being buried, too.

The “PTL Club” — standing for “Praise The Lord” or “People That Love,” or, as the critics said, “Pass The Loot” — cycled from being a quirky Christian television show to a multimillion dollar worldwide production to out of business in a matter of 15 years.

Now, major players are dying. Tammy Faye Messner, who with her then-husband, Jim Bakker, built PTL, died July 20 at 65. Falwell, who took over PTL in 1987 after the Bakkers had been forced out, died in May.

The old PTL property has been sold to developers and to MorningStar Fellowship Church. Nearly all of the buildings left from Heritage USA, the religious resort the Bakkers built, are in a state of decay.

The exception is the old Grand Hotel, which has been turned into a meeting building by MorningStar. A 21-story tower that was to house timeshares sits unfinished nearly 20 years after construction began.

“The legacy of the PTL is dying, and new life is being given to the property out here,” said Eric Greenway, president of Coulston Enterprises, which is developing 1,000 acres of the old PTL property.

Coulston Enterprises must still honor timeshares given in the 1980s for lodges by the manmade lake on the property. The timeshare leases, which were for 25 years, will expire, though, from next year through 2012.

MorningStar’s founder, Rick Joyner, has tried to distance his ministry from the PTL legacy while honoring what they built.

“We want to keep all of the good parts and learn from any mistakes made and not gloss over them,” Joyner said Friday.

Those mistakes put other ministries in a negative light, Joyner said.

“Part of our purpose is to see that site redeemed,” Joyner said. “… That’s real hard in some ways, but it’s a challenge. And our purpose is to see that turned around.”

Joyner said one-third of his church members “don’t know what you’re talking about when you say PTL.” But, Joyner said, the church makes a point to teach people about PTL and honor some of its founders.

“We think they deserve that honor,” Joyner said.

At a meeting in February at MorningStar, people who had moved down and stayed because of PTL marveled at the improvements to the place.

“I think that was a past era and there is a new era,” said Violetta Piegari, 76, who moved to Fort Mill in 1985 with her husband to be close to PTL. “Tammy Faye Bakker has passed away and that was the old era.”

She believes MorningStar is fulfilling PTL’s original purpose.

“(Joyner) wants to bring back the hope,” Piegari said.

Those who saw the rise and fall of PTL treat it as a mixed bag for the area.

“It’s an example of power and money applied to good things, and power and money used for bad things,” York County Council Chairman Buddy Motz said.

Motz said as long as the buildings remain, PTL’s memory will be with the county.

The property had once been the epicenter of the Bakkers’ evangelical opulence — a foundation built on Jim Bakker’s acumen at generating donations.

Inside PTL buildings, gold-plated bathroom furnishings had been bought with money collected by the group. Critics were quick to point to their lavish lifestyle in the name of the Lord.

Ultimately, Jim Bakker spent five years in prison convicted of mail and wire fraud after being accused of bilking $158 million out of investors of PTL.

A representative for Jim Bakker, who now preaches in Branson, Mo., said Bakker would not be available to comment for this story. A representative of his son, Jay Bakker, founder of Revolution Church, said the same.

The Bakkers began PTL after leaving Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network in 1972. By 1989, Jim Bakker had been sent to jail.

Left a `stench’ on Christianity

They left a mark on modern-day evangelism and on the country as well as on York County.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said Jim and Tammy Faye’s legacy will be of two charismatic charlatans.

“The stench they put on religion and Christianity in this country was significant,” he said.

The cynicism created by the two rubbed off on other television clergymen, he said.

Thompson said the lesson learned from PTL is that people will fall for promises of security.

“They exploited it,” he said, with a vaudeville act.

Bill Ferris, professor of Southern studies at UNC Chapel Hill, said Jim and Tammy Faye pioneered the use of television for making money from religion.

“They were pioneers in building it, and pioneers in seeing it fall apart,” Ferris said.

Though they weren’t Southern, Ferris said, they wouldn’t have succeeded elsewhere.

“They exploited the Southern tradition of religion in ways that they were very good at,” he said.

Their legacy in that regard, he said, is the lesson that “it’s dangerous to try to exploit religion for power and wealth.”

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