South Carolina move called off as partner pulls out; tax exempt status at risk

Freedom Village, Fetcher Brothers’ controversial residential ministry for troubled youth in the Town of Starkey, is offered for sale to help resolve the large and long-standing debts of the organization.

In 2018, Brothers’ religious organization, Gates Community Chapel of Rochester Inc., filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, seeking to sell many of the various residential and vacant land properties it holds to settle what is reported to be about $3 million in debts, but sought to retain the main campus of the former Lakemont Academy at 5275 State Route 14 on the western shore of Seneca Lake, as well as a 32-acre parcel on Rock Stream Road known as “Cowboy Town” which was described as integral to Freedom Village’s “horse program and youth ministry.”

According to a report from Gary Craig of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Freedom Village owes money to former staff, to a Pennsylvania man who loaned nearly $2 million to Freedom Village, and to a former student who was sexually assaulted after being placed in a room with an older sex offender. 

This is not Brothers first foray into debt. According to Craig, in the early 1990s, the operation was $21 million in debt, and Brothers was accused of living a lavish lifestyle while failing to pay back loans from donors to Freedom Village. That bankruptcy took 20 years to resolve with creditors receiving about 20 cents on the dollar.

Since the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of Western New York denied protection in what would have been Brother’s third bankruptcy, all the organization’s properties are now for sale including the former private school campus. Now standing empty of youth, staff, and the horses that figured as a central feature of the program, and with obvious signs of neglect, that formerly tax-exempt property could soon be adding tax bills to the mire of debt Brothers is facing.

Yates County Treasurer Winona Flynn explained that being owned by a religious organization is not enough for a property to qualify as tax-exempt; it must also fulfill a tax-exempt purpose, as Freedom Village did for over 35 years. But without a functional youth program, that status could be revoked by the Town of Starkey Assessor, Yates County, and the Dundee School District.

The Freedom Village campus at 5275 NY State Route 14 in Lakemont is described on commercial realty websites as:

• Residential and vacant land  

• Lot Size: 151.5 acres with 1000 ft. of Seneca Lake frontage 

• Description: Two dorm buildings, two admin. buildings, five single family residences, many other buildings. 26 Bedrooms, 14 Bathrooms. 80 x 200 ft. horse barn arena with indoor riding arena, and 16 turnout stables. Private water supply with fire hydrants.

• Listing price - $2,650,000 

Brothers had planned to move Freedom Village USA out of N.Y. State to rural Pickens County, South Carolina in a partnership with Hannah Grace Homes, an affiliate of the National Center for Life and Liberty based in Florida. Hannah Grace Homes would have operated the 38 acre campus in Sunset, S.C. But a local and vocal outcry in S.C.  from former residents of the Freedom Village program in Lakemont caused Hannah Grace Homes to withdraw from the agreement.

Earlier this month, South Carolina resident Liz Runge, a former resident of Freedom Village, spoke at public meeting in Sunset where she laid out allegations of mistreatment and questions about the possible misuse of millions of dollars raised by Brothers. Since its inception almost 40 years ago, Freedom Village and Brothers have been the subject of complaints by students and former staff of preying upon fragile, troubled teens and desperate parents, and creating  a cult-like isolated campus, enforced by intimidation, physical punishments, and psychological abuse. While Brothers contends that many young people were helped by his ministry, the empty campus and the withdrawal of the S.C. partners places the legacy and future of his ministry in serious doubt.