Stalled projects cast shadow over City of Light campus

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By Chris Sardelli

INDIAN LAND – Just months after celebrating the grand opening of the City of Light in Indian Land, Inspiration Ministries has come under fire from media outlets who are questioning whether the organization is meeting the terms of its development agreement with Lancaster County.

Articles in Carolina newspapers, including The Charlotte Observer, have focused on whether Inspiration Ministries has broken promises to Lancaster County about planned for-profit developments that could have brought jobs and revenue to the area.

The issue has thrust Indian Land, and Lancaster County, into the national spotlight as some wonder if Inspiration Ministries will fulfill its promises.

Inspiration Ministries, an extensive faith organization, is the parent company of Inspiration Networks.

Ground for the City of Light project, located off U.S. 521, was broken in November 2006.

Its first building, a headquarters called the World Reach Center, was dedicated in April 2008, and now houses almost 200 Inspiration Networks employees.

The campus opened another building, the International Prayer & Welcome Center, in February. The center houses a chapel, welcome center, coffee shop and space for prayer ministries.  

As part of its long-range plans, Inspiration Ministries also promised the county a host of other developments.

In an advertisement for the City of Light, which has made the rounds on YouTube, Inspiration’s CEO David Cerullo described his plans for a 250,000-square-foot media production center that would house classrooms and seven television studios.

Inspiration Ministries said it would build an outdoor entertainment facility and a daycare center by January 2009. A retail center was going to bring jobs to the area by the end of this year.  

Condominiums were also planned, and there was talk of a hotel and conference center, which could have attracted tourism dollars. They were reportedly set to open by 2011.

But so far, only those two nonprofit buildings have opened at City of Light; the only building open to the public is a coffee shop.

Since its initial 93-acre purchase, Inspiration Networks has bought an adjacent 144 acres.

This property is part of a 600-acre town center project being developed by a coalition of developers, including UHF Development Group, Coleman & Associates, The Tuttle Companies, Argus Properties and York Development Group.

Inspiration Ministries has said it intends to create a corporate business park and senior and luxury multifamily housing adjacent to the City of Light headquarters, but no work has begun on this project.  The proposed town center project, approved by Lancaster County Council in December 2008, will include retail and office space and several residential neighborhoods.

Representatives from Inspiration Ministries declined an interview with The Lancaster News last week.

Kristina Hill, spokeswoman for Inspiration Ministries, said her organization  won’t comment on the status of future construction plans at the City of Light or on the organization’s development agreement with Lancaster County.

“We are in discussions with Lancaster County officials and it would be inappropriate for us to comment until these matters are resolved,” Hill said late last week. “Our goal is to work through these issues by next week.”

Council waiting for input

Rudy Carter, vice chairman of County Council, said he has yet to hear from Inspiration Ministries.

“The whole concept of the development is that it would have for-profit elements. And we knew it would be at the tail end, but it seems now to be moved totally out of the picture,” Carter said. “Now, I’m wondering what’s going to happen.”

Carter said he knows that target dates for construction often change, but believes council deserves an update about plans for the campus.

“I understand that the economy has gone sour and that everything is in wait-and-see mode, but I’d just like to see somebody give me direction that something is going to be done and when it will be done,” Carter said.

Fred Thomas, chairman of County Council, said there has been talk about sitting down with Inspiration Ministries representatives, though no date has been set. He hopes to meet soon and said the meeting should include members from council, Inspiration Ministries and the Lancaster County Economic Development Corp.

“We are going to sit down with them and look at the  tenets of that agreement and determine whether any changes need to be made,” Thomas said.

County Administrator Steve Willis said Inspiration Ministries has supplied reports about its progress to council. He said it’s not unusual in a down economy to see little progress on a project of that scale.

“Right now, with everybody in the middle of the downturn, it’s not terribly surprising that there’s not a lot of activity going on,” Willis said.

Willis said some other developers have approached County Council about extending the target dates of their development agreements. He said that if Inspiration Ministries wants to extend its target dates, representatives would need to approach council. Inspiration Ministries has not yet spoken to council about amending the development agreement, he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen soon,” Willis said. “It’s gotten to the point that these people are realizing this (recession) won’t be a six-month blip and maybe we should extend the targets.”

Willis said Inspiration Ministries’ five-year development agreement, signed in February 2007, is still active. If the property isn’t fully developed by Jan. 9, 2012, Willis said Inspiration Ministries could still enter into negotiations for another development agreement. If the terms of the current agreement aren’t met, Willis said there are no harsh consequences.

“They won’t put you into jail or anything,” Willis said. “But you lose the ability to develop the property according to the agreement. The developer wants to develop the land in a certain way, but if you don’t have it completed in that time frame, you lose the right to develop it in that special way and it reverts back to its normal zoning.”

Were incentives necessary?

Much of the controversy over the lack of for-profit centers on Inspiration’s Indian Land campus has to do with incentives offered to them by the state.

As part of its agreement to move to Indian Land from its former home in Charlotte, the state offered Inspiration Ministries job-development credits, which are rebates on payroll taxes. It could receive between $3 million and $26 million.

The incentives were approved by the S.C. Coordinating Council for Economic Development. This group, created by the General Assembly, is made up of the heads of 10 state agencies related to economic development, including the S.C. Department of Commerce, the S.C. Department of Agriculture and the S.C. Employment Security Commission.

Calls to the Department of Commerce about the incentives were not returned by Friday afternoon.

Willis said the incentives offered to Inspiration Ministries were from the State Department of Commerce. If  Inspiration Ministries doesn’t honor the incentive agreement, stiff penalties, called “claw backs,” could be imposed. Inspiration Ministries could be required to repay the incentives or forfeit the land if it doesn’t fulfill the terms it agreed to, Willis said.

Keith Tunnell, president of the Lancaster County Economic Development Corp., said he’s hopeful  Inspiration Ministries will fulfill its commitment with the City of Light project.

Tunnell said he’d heard from many county residents who are worried about how their tax money is being spent, but he said it’s important to note that no county taxpayer money has been used for the City of Light development, nor will any be used for the incentives offered to Inspiration Ministries to move their headquarters to the county. He said Inspiration Ministries applied for and received state-funded incentives.

“Any funds they’ve received are from grants or from the Department of Commerce, not taxpayer dollars,” Tunnell said.

Stanley Smith was the Indian Land representative on County Council when Inspiration Ministries first approached the county in its search for land. He said, at that point, the county did not discuss incentives.

“That’s when they told us what they were about,” Smith said. “They didn’t ask for anything, no money. They just asked us to help them find land they could buy.”

Smith said he was surprised the state offered incentives to Inspiration Ministries, because he believes the organization was well on its way toward moving into the county anyway.

“They had plenty of money to buy land with,” he said. “They didn’t need money from the state or county.”

Smith said the bottom line is that Inspiration should be providing more information to the county than it is.

“They’ve got their main building up; that’s their cash cow,” Smith said. “You got to give them some time. They’re just getting started, but they do need to show they have a plan. The retail was a big selling point. That would bring employees and sales tax.”

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli  at csardelli@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 416-8416