FOMZI Faces Deadline, Demolition

Progress has been made on the old Mt. Zion Institute, but will it be enough and in time to save it from the wrecking ball?

Progress has been made on the old Mt. Zion Institute, but will it be enough and in time to save it from the wrecking ball?

WINNSBORO – With progress at the old Mt. Zion School slowing to a crawl over the summer, the Friends of Mt. Zion Institute (FOMZI), the community action group committed to the preservation and restoration of the site, once more finds itself under the gun and facing the potential of demolition.

During their Sept. 1 meeting, Town Council discussed in executive session FOMZI’s progress and their looming deadline – the first of two deadlines stipulated in the March 2014 agreement that transferred the property at 205 N. Walnut St. from the Town to FOMZI.

According to the agreement, FOMZI purchased the property and its four buildings (the Mt. Zion School, the auditorium and gymnasium, the cafeteria and the Teacherage) for $5, but with the caveat that the buildings had to be stabilized within 18 months to meet Winnsboro’s Dangerous Building Code or be torn down.

Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy said after the Sept. 1 meeting that the Town had not seen much activity at the site since faux windows were installed on the front of the school building last May, and the 18-month deadline was rapidly approaching.

That deadline came and went last Friday, and Gaddy told The Voice this week that while a code enforcement officer had not yet made an inspection of the site, it appeared that the buildings were not up to code. Although the faux windows had been installed on the front of the school, Gaddy said, windows on the back of the building and on the gym were still open.

“The reality of the situation is we’ve been dealing with Mt. Zion for 10 years,” Gaddy said. “The residents in the neighborhood think it’s an eyesore and we’ve had complaints of rats and snakes. I don’t think it’s up to code. If we get a written opinion (from code enforcement) that it’s not up to code, then we’ll have to abide by the terms of the agreement.”

And those terms mean demolition.

Vicki Dodds, FOMZI Chairwoman, admitted that progress has been slow over the summer and that her group has not updated Town Council on where renovation stands. But, she said, she feels like FOMZI is in line with the agreement.

“Our understanding was to get it cleaned up, improve the appearance and get it secured,” Dodds said. “That would meet the 18-month benchmark. We got the grounds cleaned up and we keep them cleaned, and we completed the windows project. If that doesn’t meet the requirements, we’re in a boatload of trouble.”

Dodds also said the roof on the school building has been repaired, but the roof on the auditorium was in much worse shape and would be three times as costly to replace. A smokestack rising from the auditorium also needs repair, she said, but couldn’t be addressed until FOMZI could begin on the roof. And all of that will take a lot more money than FOMZI currently has in the bank.

“So much of what we’re running into,” Dodds said, “as far as grants and interest from developers – the first question they ask is ‘Do you have the backing of the Town and the County?’ The Town is happy for us to do whatever, but the County has said they don’t want anything to do with it.”

Dodds said she plans to lobby County Council for their support of the project.

FOMZI’s 30-month benchmark, which comes around one year from now, calls for the group to hire a contractor or developer for the historic rehabilitation of the buildings. Dodds said she may have some developer interest, but, she said, “We have to make sure it’s the right developer for the right thing.”

Red Clay Development, a North Carolina firm that purchased the property for $100,000 in 2009, made a run at developing the old school as a retail hub. Those plans fizzled, and when Red Clay failed to even maintain the property the Town retained ownership in 2012.

While Dodds and FOMZI search for a more appropriate developer, she said she plans to update Council at their Sept. 15 meeting.

“I don’t think they’re going to take it away and tear it down,” she said.

Gaddy, however, was less optimistic.

“Everybody knows what’s expected. Everybody knows what the agreement is,” Gaddy said. “If everybody knows what the process is, that (demolition) is what FOMZI should expect. That’s what we have the agreement for.”

Gaddy said he fully expects to hear from FOMZI at the next Council meeting.

“Now that it appears that they did not meet their benchmarks, they’ll probably come plead their case,” Gaddy said. “We’ve bent over backwards to try to be accommodating to save those non-historic buildings on an historic site. When I became mayor, I said Mt. Zion would be torn down in 90 days.”

That was 10 years ago, Gaddy added.

Council meets at Town Hall, 207 N. Congress St., at 6:15 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.


Contact us: (803) 767-5711 | P.O. Box 675, Blythewood, SC 29016 | [email protected]