Town Reclaims Mt. Zion

IMG_3312 copyWINNSBORO (March 4, 2016) – After two years, efforts by a group of citizens to save and restore the Mt. Zion Institute at 205 N. Walnut St. may have finally come to an end.

Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to begin the process of transferring the deed to the property from the Friends of Mt. Zion Institute (FOMZI) back to the Town of Winnsboro. The decision came after a brief executive session during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled Council meeting.

“We had an agreement with FOMZI and the building was to be stabilized and we had an independent person to look at it and it’s not stabilized,” Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy said after the meeting. “The deadline on that was September, so we’re about six months past that deadline. With them not being able to do that (stabilize the old school building), the agreement says we will transfer the deed back to the Town. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Gaddy said transferring the deed back to the Town does not necessarily mean the wrecking ball is on its way. At least not right away.

Council still has before it a proposal from the Banyan Foundation, presented in part to Council last month, to develop the former school building into market-value senior-living apartments. That proposal met with vociferous opposition during Council’s Feb. 16 meeting, but Tuesday night Gaddy said no decision had yet been made on the project.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with that,” Gaddy said. “The first thing we want to do is get the possession of it (Mt. Zion) so we can make a decision ourselves on what we’re going to do.”

A major concern about the Banyan Foundation’s proposal, which Gaddy noted during the Feb. 16 meeting and reiterated Tuesday night, is whether or not the project would involve taxpayer dollars in the form of federal grants or loans. Federal money, Gaddy said, could eventually open the property to low-income housing – something Gaddy and Mt. Zion neighbors do not want.

Vickie Dodds, FOMZI Chairwoman, said during the Feb. 16 meeting that she also opposed low-income housing on the site, but urged Council to give the developer, Rob Coats, time to do his due diligence.

Reached by phone after Tuesday’s decision, Dodds said she was not surprised to learn of Council’s move to take the property away from FOMZI.

The citizens group has had control of the property since purchasing it from the Town for $5 two years ago. The transfer of the property to FOMZI came with the stipulation that the buildings had to be stabilized within 18 months in order to meet Winnsboro’s Dangerous Building Code or else be demolished. Dodds said Tuesday night that FOMZI’s efforts failed for lack of general support.

“From the get-go this has been a project that needed the Town, the County and the community behind it,” Dodds said, “but we haven’t gotten it from any of them. It’s just been a handful of us.”

Following Tuesday’s meeting, Gaddy said there had been some suggestions from FOMZI supporters that the group may attempt legal action in order to prevent the Town from taking back the property. Dodds said later that while that may be true, it was a position she did not share.

“We took it (the property) under the conditions they offered us and we didn’t do what they wanted us to do,” Dodds said. “But that doesn’t mean they (FOMZI board members) won’t do it (sue the Town). But they won’t do it with me as chairman.”

John Fantry, Winnsboro’s legal counsel on utilities, said the transfer could be completed in as little as 10 days if FOMZI didn’t put up a fight. If FOMZI did contest the transfer, he said, it could take as long as 18 months.

“I’m not sure what they’re going to do with it,” Dodds said. “If they tear it down, they’re making a big mistake.”