The Last, Last Chance

The Town of Winnsboro is fortunate to have a physician serving as mayor; but not even the most gifted of healer can cure every ailment, and for the patient the Town has wired up in ICU right now, it may be time to consider bringing in Hospice.

This patient – the Mt. Zion Institute building – has been on life support for more than a decade, having been shuffled around from deathbed to deathbed while would-be miracle workers and faith healers have tried to conjure up a way to resurrect it from certain doom. The last such bed-jiggler, Red Clay Development, came on the scene some three years ago, with a medicine bag full of promises of retail space, coffee shops and fitness centers, all missing one vital detail: Any details whatsoever. The concepts were sound, but much like a stump speech on the campaign trail, they were devoid of any specifics. Like the candidate who says all will be revealed once he is elected, Red Clay would tell us what all these fantastic new businesses were once the contracts were signed.

But as the years melted away, it became more and more apparent that there was no such future for Mt. Zion, at least not under the care of Red Clay, and last week Town Council made their final decision final, instructing their attorney to begin the separation process between the North Carolina developers and the Town of Winnsboro. And while this decision was without a doubt the right one to make, the Town of Winnsboro may very well have saddled themselves with one very ugly albatross. With ownership of the rapidly decaying building now shifting back into the Town of Winnsboro’s hands, the Town becomes perhaps the most egregious violator of its own new property maintenance codes. Indeed, with the emphasis placed on similar codes by the County, were Mt. Zion sitting on the opposite side of the boarder, Fairfield County may well have demolished the structure months ago.

The one thing standing between revitalization and demolition is money – great loads of it. If the Town of Winnsboro had the kind of money necessary just to keep the building from deteriorating further, they likely would have long ago invested it, instead of passing the property off like a sweaty stick of dynamite. The building would make an ideal home for Dru Blair’s College of Art, but before he has enough students to justify the move, say in five or six years, Mt. Zion may be little more than a heap of smoking rubble. Historic rubble, but rubble nonetheless. The only hope may be a partnership of some kind between the Town and the Friends of Mt. Zion Institute (FOMZI). How much money FOMZI has and how much more they can raise remains to be seen, as does how quickly they can raise it. If they can just cobble together enough to keep the building from falling into further disrepair, keep the grass cut and fence it off to remove the potential public hazard – you know, all those things Red Clay was supposed to have done – there may be a chance after all that it will at least still be there when the College of Art is all grown up.

The one thing in Mt. Zion’s favor is the fact that the Town has yet to hire a code enforcement officer, and when they do, he or she is likely to have an instant backlog longer than Bill Clinton’s Little Black Book. But eventually they’ll get around to it, and when they do perhaps proceeds from property maintenance code citations, particularly the ones the Town will have to write to itself, could go toward Mt. Zion’s upkeep. Otherwise, we should all brace ourselves for the inevitable death knell for Mt. Zion.