Tourist attraction planned on site of Branch Davidians standoff

Waco Tribune-Herald, Texas/April 1, 2007
By Tim Woods

After announcing in February that they hope to renovate the New Mount Carmel property, once home to David Koresh's Branch Davidian sect, the current occupants say they are hoping Waco and Central Texas residents will pony up the funds for the renovation.

“Our plans are big,” said Charles Pace, leader of The Branch, The Lord of Righteousness sect of the Branch Davidians, who maintain and worship on the property at 1781 Double EE Ranch Road in Elk. “But we have to get support. We’d like to get support from local people because it’s not going to be something we can do on our own. We’d like to get the worship going like it was here before.”

The “before” that Pace refers to is not the time of Koresh and his followers, however.

“We do not want to restore what we had before Vernon Howell (Koresh’s given name) came and perverted everything,” Pace said. “We want to set the record straight and we want to make this place a healing place like it was before, when the Indians were here.”

Local developer Ray Feight Sr. is working with Pace on the renovation plans. The two say they would like to construct an Old Testament-style tabernacle, an amphitheater, a spiritual healing center, a museum showing the entire history of the land and a memorial wall containing a stone for each of the 86 people killed in 51-day standoff that ended in fire April 19, 1993.

The plans have caught the attention of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has denounced what it calls plans to build a “biblical petting zoo.” PETA decries petting zoos as cruel and a health hazard.

Pace said a petting zoo is not part of the plan, though animals will likely be used to make the planned tabernacle seem more true to Old Testament times. Visitors would not have access to the animals, Pace said.

To make the plan a reality, though, Pace and Feight say they will need about $10 million. While the men are hopeful that local residents will donate money for the project, they admit that it might be a difficult road, as the events of 1993 are still fresh in the minds of many.

“What can we do about it? We can bring them out here and teach them the truth,” Pace said. “The truth will set you free . . . The church (under Koresh) went through an apostasy and was judged. It was prophesied that there would be a slaughter of men, women and children and that there would be a fire. Why? Because (followers) were not sighing and crying for the abominations that were being done here. They were breaking God’s law . . . We believe we got judged and we got judged royally.”

Pace said that there are no plans for a new compound with communal living and that if people became familiar with his teachings they would see that they have nothing to fear from a renovated site.

In fact, Pace said it would be a waste for area residents not to take advantage of what he sees as a possible draw for tourists. Between 25 and 200 people visit the site on a weekly basis, he said.

“We’re wanting our neighbors to realize what they have here,” Pace said. “They’re afraid of what is here because they don’t understand it. If they understood it, they would want to support it and make it a historic site. When you say Waco, people don’t think of Baylor (University). When you say Waco, people think about what happened here. Waco should capitalize on that.”

Liz Taylor, executive director of the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she had not heard about plans for a renovated Branch Davidian site but the tourist information center provides maps to the location.

“If they are a valid tourist attraction, then it becomes something we evaluate,” Taylor said. “But until we see that, it’s hard to make a determination (about the value of the site as an attraction). I’ve not heard anything about this but, wow, I’d sure be interested in seeing what they have in mind.”

Waco Chamber of Commerce president Jim Vaughan said he knows visitors often ask about the location of the Branch Davidian site, just like they ask about President Bush’s Crawford ranch. However, he said that any help raising funds would only come after much discussion and deliberation in the community.

“It would take a pretty broad-based series of meetings talking about ‘What is the legacy of that?’ and ‘how would the community feel about the place and how it would be interpreted and remembered?’ ” Vaughan said. “How would the community want to remember that event? It just seems to me like you’ve got to get a lot of input from people who were here (in 1993).”

Catherine Matteson, a follower of Koresh’s Branch Davidian teachings who left the compound during the standoff, said she and other surviving Koresh followers have distanced themselves from Pace and his approximately 12-person congregation. She also said that raising the needed funds is a very real possibility for Pace.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if somebody would donate the money,” Matteson said. “As far as I’m concerned, though, it doesn’t bother me one bit what he does there. I don’t care what he does with it because he’s got to answer to God — he doesn’t have to answer to me.”

Pace looked to his faith when talking about the prospect of raising $10 million from local residents.

“If the people in Waco don’t chip in, I believe God is going to give the opportunity for other people around the world to chip in,” he said.

Again, Pace tried to allay any fears of a return to the tragic events of 1993.

“There will be no compound,” he said. “There’s the compound,” he said, pointing to a picture of the proposed tabernacle.

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