The infrastructure for 2,000 homes and condominium apartments on nearly 600 acres in Blue Eye has been in place for four years, but the build-out has been quiet at the planned community centered around an infamous televangelist.
Now, however, as Pastor Jim Bakker works to complete two projects tied to his Morningside ministry, developer Jerry Crawford is banking on an improving economy to bolster interest in their collective vision.
With land purchases, an RV park, a new tabernacle and two building projects under way, Bakker appears to be making the most of his second chance in ministry. He had served five years in federal prison in the 1990s following fraud charges tied to his Christian-based theme park Heritage USA in Fort Mill, S.C.
Jerry and Dee Crawford are the co-owners of the Morningside property, 20 miles southwest of Branson on Grace Chapel Road. Jerry Crawford has worked in the construction business for four decades, and through Western Construction LLC, he’s also built subdivisions Creek Bridge in Ozark and Cedarbrook in Republic.
The Crawfords became familiar with Bakker’s work after attending a seminar to restore their marriage offered through the preacher’s Heritage USA. In the ‘90s, they met Bakker, and in 2002, Bakker and his second wife, Lori, moved to the Ozarks and the preacher worked out of Crawford’s Studio City Café in Branson.
In 2005, the Crawfords purchased 587 acres in Blue Eye and began to develop the $40 million development community centered around The Jim Bakker Show. At the heart of Morningside is a 200,000-square-foot Italian-themed building home to Bakker’s studio, a general store, two kitchens, a beauty shop, Churchill Coffee shop and 111 condominium units. The studio holds seating for 150.
“We are probably 60 percent to 70 percent filled out with residential in our big building. I think that is pretty good for the times,” Jerry Crawford said.
The Jim Bakker Show started 16 years to the date after Bakker’s last broadcast of the PTL Club, according to JimBakkerShow.com
. PTL Club was a multimillion-dollar media empire founded by Bakker, through which the Heritage USA hotel and properties were born.
While Morningside’s progress has been slow since 2008, the Blue Eye development is taking shape. The complex pales in comparison to the 2,300-acre Heritage USA.
“Since we started the project, we have built a 20-unit condo apartment project and a 16-unit and we’ve built several townhomes, and we’ve expanded the property with about three miles of road into the valley,” Crawford said, noting most of the 600 acres still is undeveloped.
Crawford said he has sold a little more than 20 acres of the original development property to Bakker’s ministry, Morningside Church Inc. Bakker’s church and Crawford’s company, Morningside Development LLC, are separate entities, but the heads of the organizations have a good relationship.
On Bakker’s 20 acres, cabins are being built in the valley and an RV park is now in place behind the main building. An 11,000-square-foot, $1.5 million tabernacle was erected last year, complete with an auditorium and studio space for youth ministers. Also, a 14,000-square-foot educational facility for unwed mothers named Lori’s House just had its roof fastened, according to Char Graham, Bakker’s mother-in-law and senior vice president of human resources for Morningside Church. A warehouse facility, also fitted with its own studio, is currently under construction.
Crawford said he has sold the church nearly 120 acres of adjacent land for an undisclosed amount for future development.
The Morningside vision is to build a Christ-centered self-supporting community, organizers say.
“Jim’s emphasis is teaching revelation – what is happening and what’s going to happen,” Graham said. “Pastor Jim studies all the time, you know, what the Bible is saying about what is happening around us. … And people are listening to that message.
Graham said Bakker was not available for an interview, and she declined to disclose revenues for the nonprofit. The tax-exempt Morningside Church has not voluntarily filed financial information with nonprofit reporting agency GuideStar or the Internal Revenue Service.
Graham said the church does not hold memberships with any independent accrediting agencies.
Graham said followers of Bakker – whose show is broadcast through more than 50 TV affiliates, including Mediacom and KOZL in Springfield – know that revenues from purchases of various products, or “love gifts,” support the projects at Morningside, which are 100 percent donor supported. Love gifts range from a $20 DVD on biblical prophecy to the $3,000 “Time of Trouble Plus” package, which includes 42 emergency food buckets and seven vegetable sampler buckets.
John Schmalzbauer, associate professor and chairman in protestant studies at Missouri State University’s religious studies department, said there are many examples of notable evangelical preachers thriving after being embroiled in public controversy.
“When F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘There are no second acts in American history,’ he wasn’t paying attention to American religion because there are many figures in American Christianity, especially in American evangelicalism, who have been able to come back from things like this,” Schmalzbauer said.
He pointed to 21st century evangelicals such as Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Foursquare Church and pastor of the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, who continued a successful career after it was thought she had drowned and she reported to be kidnapped in 1926. Faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman and Bakker contemporary Jimmy Swaggart were known for notable careers after marital infidelity.
Schmalzbauer said many evangelicals place an emphasis on grace and forgiveness, giving a second chance to preachers such as Bakker.
Bakker was famously indicted in 1988 for mail and wire fraud and conspiring to defraud the public by overselling the lodging space at Heritage USA. His charges were later reduced to eight years in federal prison, and the pastor – who founded “The 700 Club” and Trinity Broadcasting Network – was released from custody in 1994 after serving five years.
“It falls into the structure of an evangelical conversion story: ‘I once was lost, but now I’m found,’” said Schmalzbauer, who described Bakker as a talented entrepreneur who is qualified to teach at Harvard Business School despite being a Bible-school dropout. Besides, he said, not everyone needs to be convinced of Bakker’s conversion. “You don’t need everybody to support you, right? You just need a critical mass – enough to keep you going.”[[In-content Ad]]