WINNSBORO – Winnsboro Town Council was bustling Tuesday night as seemingly half the town packed council chambers for discussion of the Mount Zion Institute.
In addition to two presentations to the council regarding the building, there were several public comments and some heated debate.
The Mount Zion Institute has a rich history that predates the Revolutionary War and includes the occupation by British General Charles Cornwallis, who recommended the building be used as a college designed after his own alma mater, the New Jersey College.
While the current buildings were not constructed until the 1930s, the campus itself is one of only two remaining in the United States which served as enemy troop encampment sites during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
Now, with the county and both of its consulting firms discussing preserving the community’s historic buildings to promote tourism, the town is ready to tear the building down.
One resident, Marie Rosborough, took it upon herself to poll the neighborhood surrounding the building and said that nearly every single one of them wanted the school torn down.
“We had a total of 27 people to respond, only two on Zion Street across from the field, said they would be in favor of medium to higher income apartments,” Rosborough said. “Everybody else, 100 percent of the people who have property adjacent to Mount Zion on Hudson Street, Bratton Street, are 100 percent opposed to apartments.”
The issue, according to Pelham Lyles, is that the neighborhood was selectively polled and only those in favor of tearing the building down were included.
There are 19 properties immediately adjacent to the Mount Zion Institute, but if the surveys were to have been expanded to all the residents on the adjoining streets, there are approximately 50 homes, with many more being within walking distance of the building.
While the future of the school is uncertain, there are at least two groups working to save it and put it to good use.
The Friends of the Mt. Zion Institute (FOMZI) have worked for a number of years trying to find a developer to come in and re-purpose the facility, but have found the prospect difficult for many reasons.
Recently, an organization being headed by Robert Coats approached FOMZI about acquiring the building and developing it into market rate housing. Coats’ other ventures have largely been in low-income housing and, if there has been one consensus with Mount Zion, it is that nobody wants it turned into low-income housing.
Attorney Boyd Brown gave a presentation on Coats’ behalf to Town Council and assured everyone that there was no chance at all of the potential development becoming low income housing and that any discussions could be halted if that were to become a possibility.
Randy Sisk also presented to the Town Council a proposal that would provide a great deal of potential were it to come to fruition.
Sisk would like to have the building restored and utilized as a YMCA for after-school programs and wants to see a pool installed which would serve multiple purposes from swimming lessons to rehabilitation.
Sisk hopes to partner with the Fairfield Memorial Hospital as well as the Fairfield County School District in an effort to provide entertainment and education opportunities through the use of the building.
Reach James Inabinet at (803) 635-4016.