Fate of Mt. Zion Hangs on FOMZI Proposal

WINNSBORO – With the Mt. Zion Institute building teetering once again on the edge of demolition, Town Council met with Vickie Dodds and the Friends of the Mt. Zion Institute (FOMZI) in a public work session Tuesday night to discuss the future of the ailing landmark.

Dodds, who said FOMZI made their first proposal to Council in 2009, said that proposal still stands, but only Council was holding it back.

“Either you buy into it or you don’t,” Dodds said. “We’ve been ready to go since May. The only thing that has held us back has been ya’ll.”

Ownership of the property officially returned to the Town in April, when Red Clay Development failed to live up to any of its commitments since taking control of the site in November of 2009.

Dodds said FOMZI has raised approximately $60,000 to revitalize the building, with an additional $15-17,000 pledged. FOMZI as not, Dodds said, looking to the Town for additional funds, but for the green light to get started. With the Town holding the deed, Dodds said FOMZI is unable to put contractors to work, particularly on the roof, which she said had to be the first order of business.

Dodds said to stabilize the roof over the classrooms and the connector to the auditorium would cost between $30-35,000. The roofing fix would be temporary, lasting 4-6 years. The roof over the gym, she said, was too far gone to patch. Once the roof was patched, and the deterioration of the building stabilized, an updated asbestos study would have to be submitted to the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). The next step would be restoring the windows, then working to remove lead paint chips from the interior.

“This isn’t something we’re trying to do and say, ‘OK, in a year we plan to have one floor clean and the roofing done and the windows done’. We can’t do that,” Dodds said. “But we can’t not start. And it might be surprising how far we get once we get started.”

Councilman Clyde Sanders said while FOMZI was Mt. Zion’s “last chance,” the Town couldn’t wait another five years for it to be renovated – something that would cost between $7-8 million, he said.

“What are you risking,” Dodds asked, “if it takes five years, and we’re raising the funds and doing the work and not coming to ya’ll all the time (for money)? Three years or five years is not realistic for a project this size. I cannot figure out, for the life of me, what ya’ll have to lose by giving us a shot. We know the risks.”

Mayor Roger Gaddy suggested a scaled-down version might be more reasonable, saving the auditorium only, an idea to which Dodds said she was not necessarily opposed.

“No matter what decision we make, we’re going to alienate somebody,” Gaddy said. “This project is very ambitious and I think it would have more success if it were smaller.”

Gaddy and Council asked for a lease proposal that would include some clear benchmarks for progress to be discussed at a future work session. A final decision by Council, he added – either to demolish the building or give FOMZI a shot at saving it – would be made in the coming weeks.

“Red Clay had it for five years and nothing was done to it,” Gaddy said. “I guarantee you, we’re not going to wait another five years. We’re not going to wait another two years.”

Dodds said benchmarks and a timetable could be included into any lease agreement; benchmarks that if not met could terminate the lease. But to not even try, she said, would be a missed opportunity for Winnsboro.

“I won’t shed tears if it’s torn down because of the building,” Dodds said. “I will shed tears because it’s a missed opportunity.”