The studio was once the most celebrated in TV evangelism. But last week, Vancouver real estate entrepreneur Peter Thomas found himself the main attraction in the cavernous South Carolina auditorium that was once the electronic pulpit of disgraced PTL TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker. The crowd of 500 PTL employees facing him was attentive and expectant. That was because Thomas, who has bid $138 million for the bankrupt group’s assets, including a 500-acre Christian theme park and cable television network, may be the answer to PTL’S prayers. Cutting a dramatic figure in a black suit, yellow tie and matching yellow handkerchief, Thomas received a standing ovation after announcing that he would retain the park as a Christian retreat where the sale of alcohol and tobacco would continue to be forbidden. But Thomas quickly discovered that a vote of confidence from PTL may include more than he bargained for. Shouted one woman:
“Do you know that the Lord Jesus is your personal savior?” Replied Thomas: “I’m Anglican’’ —a denomination known as Episcopalian in the United States.
It has been more than a year since husband-andwife team Jim and Tammy Bakker were ousted from the leadership of their wildly successful PTL (for “Praise the Lord” and “People that love”) ministry under a cloud of sex scandals and alleged fiscal mismanagement. Since then, creditors, who are owed at least $110 million and possibly as much as $275 million, have been clamoring for their money.
PTL’S assets are currently under the control of bankruptcy trustee M. C. (Red) Benton in Winston-Salem, N.C., and he must find a buyer for the property and an acceptable price. Heritage USA, PTL’s Christian theme park, includes the 504-room Heritage Grand Hotel, a 2,500-seat church, a five-acre water park and Main Street USA, an enclosed shopping mall with storefronts depicting different periods of
American history. There is also 1,700 acres of undeveloped rolling countryside lying directly in the southward-expanding path of Charlotte, N.C. Despite last week’s commitment to the Christian character of the theme park, Thomas also said that he originally
made the bid just “for the real estate.” The nonsmoking, nondrinking Thomas, 49, has a flair for recognizing a good deal. He made his fortune as the founder of Century 21 Real Estate Canada Ltd. of Richmond, B.C., a burgeoning offshoot of the similarly named American real estate franchise chain. Annual sales are about $6 billion. The offer for PTL was made formally by Vancouver-based Samoth Capital Corp. Ltd., a Toronto Stock Exchange-listed company. Thomas owns Samoth—an anagram for Thomas—with Karsten von Wersebe, president of Torontobased York-Hanover Developments Ltd.,
which operates hotels, amusement parks and retirement centres.
Last week, Thomas also demonstrated his talent for outmanoeuvring the opposition. The Bakkers have repeatedly stated that they plan to regain control of the PTL and to rebuild its financial strength, even though they are being sued for $64 million by the PTL for “gross and wilful mismanagement.” Undeterred, they returned to South Carolina in May from their luxurious retreat in Palm Springs, Calif., to which they had fled after resigning from the PTL last March. Jim Bakker has attacked Thomas’s offer, saying that it represents only $94 million because only $56 million is to be paid in cash, with the rest spread over five years, a form of financing that deprives PTL of interest that could be earned if the whole payment were made in cash. Bakker said that he will offer more than $94 million, although observers, including Benton, say that he will have to come up with an all-cash offer, and they have cast doubt on his ability to do that.
Thomas appears to have outflanked Bakker by making a $1.2-million cash deposit last Thursday and cementing his personal relations with local officials—and the church members. Although Bakker—who was present
1 during Thomas’s anil^ nouncement last week— “i' said that Thomas failed to
2 comprehend what the PTL S is “all about” because he is t not a born-again ChrisS tian, Thomas received anî other standing ovation for
promising a new church on the Heritage grounds. Said Donald Edwards, president of the PTL spin-off, Heritage Ministries—created to carry on PTL’S religious activities after the property is sold: “Obviously, he put a stake in the ground opposite Mr. Bakker.”
And having thwarted Bakker, Thomas then charmed his other major competitor, North Carolina sports entrepreneur George Shinn. Earlier this month, Shinn objected to the possibility of a major local institution such as the PTL being owned by Canadians. He now says that he may drop his own undisclosed bid and join Thomas as a partner. Shinn, who owns the Charlotte Hornets, a new National Basketball Association franchise, and the Charlotte Knights, a minor-league baseball team, says that he wants to build a stadium on the PTL property.
Meanwhile, Thomas still faces the prospect that the presence of a charismatic leader like Bakker may be essential to the Christian theme park’s success. Before last year’s sex and money scandals, the Bakkers reached 12 million American households on the PTL television network. That kind of penetration helped bring in $992,400 a week in donations to PTL coffers and kept five million visitors a year flocking to Heritage USA.
But over the past year, donations have fallen to $213,500 a week and occupancy at the Heritage Grand Hotel has slipped to 35 per cent from 86 per cent. Said Shinn: “I’ve said all along that for that complex to survive as a Christian retreat, it has got to have TV as a marketing tool. If they lose that, it will be a ghost town.”
Shinn also says that Heritage USA’s proximity to a nearby secular theme park, Carowinds, means that it cannot compete as a typical theme park, which was Thomas’s original plan for the property. Last week, Thomas said that he estimates an annual profit of about $25 million to be generated by the property. Said Thomas: “I’d really like this to be a keeper.” As part of the deal, Thomas will sell 25 acres back to the Heritage ministry for a token dollar, with the land to be used for a church and nonprofit activities. He added that the 70 million so-called spoken Christians in the United States—those who openly profess traditional Christian values and abstain from alcohol and tobacco-will use Heritage USA for religious conferences and as a retirement centre.
About 1,000 people, many retired, already live on the grounds. And if the park again becomes a major success, Thomas says that he may build another Christian theme park, perhaps in California.
By any measure, Heritage USA is a lavish tribute to the Christian life. Wake-up calls at the Heritage Grand Hotel proclaim: “This is the day the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it.” The hotel’s indoor pool doubles as a giant baptismal font. The shopping mall features such stores as the Heavenly Fudge Shop, Noah’s Toys and the Heaven Scent Candle Shop, although Tammy
Faye Cosmetics and Der Bakkers’ Bakery have since changed their names. There is camping in Praise Hollow, visits to Billy Graham’s boyhood home, and outdoor passion plays.
But the past year of scandal and recriminations has taken its toll. The once-lush flower beds are empty, untrimmed grass and weeds proliferate, and the hotel is suffering from water damage caused by a leaking roof and humidity from the indoor swimming pool. Staff levels have been cut drastically, with 66 per cent of the park’s 1,400 employees losing their jobs. Said Thomas last week: “My biggest single concern is the extent of deterioration, caused by the year of nonmaintenance.” But if Thomas can heal the wounds of the crippled park, and perhaps of the PTL itself, there will be many people lining up to congratulate him. And his success in South Carolina will be a fitting reward for an “Anglican” who says that he has based his career on clean living and positive thinking.
-PATRICIA CHISHOLM with HENRY EICHEL in Columbia, S.C.
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