Codirector pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with failed planned community
A Christian academy that plans to open in Ridgecrest in July is refurbishing two properties, and neighbors are upset about the construction and one of the director’s criminal past.
United Life Academy, slated to open on Dixon Drive on the site of the former Madison Inn and Restaurant, will instruct young singles and married couples on how to live a life that puts Christian principles into action, its website states. Marketed toward men and women 18 to 25, it has signed up six married couples and hopes to accommodate 30 single men and women in the old inn, codirector Nicholas Dimitris said last week.
It plans to use the old Murray Hill Lodge on Florida Avenue for the married couples and has an affiliation with a recently sold 1905 Sears and Roebuck house on the street that may also be used for the academy. Between the three properties, Florida Avenue was abuzz with construction activity on April 18.
Neighbor Jeff Wallace is concerned that narrow Dixon Drive and Florida Avenue, between which the old inn sits, won’t be able to withstand the additional traffic of several academy students. Already the construction traffic has made his life difficult, he said. He misses the large oak trees that were cut down during the recent demolitions.
“My concern is for the whole character of the neighborhood going from residential to a whole bunch of group homes,” said Wallace, who put his house up for sale last week as a result of the academy’s moving in.
“We are just appalled by what’s going on right now,” Donna Fisher, who sold the house on Florida Avenue, said.
In December, Dimitris and his wife Emily Dimitris received a conditional use permit that would allow them to build a rooming house on the premises of the old inn. Their application states that the quarters would provide “affordable lodging for ministry interns.” The owner would be – and is – New Day Holdings LLC, whose address on the corresponding deed is the same as the church Dimitris pastors in Asheville. New Day Holdings bought the old inn from First Citizen's Bank.
New Day Holdings LLC also owns the former Murray Hill Lodge on Florida Avenue, Buncombe County deed records indicate. In an interview last week, Dimitris said the LLC uses office space at his Asheville church, United Church, but is otherwise a separate entity.
New Day Holdings recently bought a third property in the neighborhood – 21 Florida Ave., Fisher’s former house. The house on the property is now owned by two members of United Church, Terry and Elaine Dalton, who plan to host academy faculty and guests at the house, Terry Dalton said. The lot belongs to New Day Holdings, Dimitris said.
United Life Academy (unitedlifeacademy.com) is currently setting up its curriculum and inviting teachers, codirector David Fredriksz said in a joint interview with Dimitris at United Church last week. Fredriksz, who said he has started three Christian discipleship schools in Spain, the Netherlands and East Africa, will attend to the academy’s day-to-day operations, he said. Nicholas and Emily Dimitris will serve as codirectors, mentors and ministry leaders, Nicholas "Nick" Dimitris said.
United Life Academy’s 12-month “holistic discipleship approach is intended for fullness to become reality for every heart,” its website states. The program is designed for “personal revival and total transformation.” It hopes “to lead a generation into intimacy with the Father.”
Studies at the academy won’t lead to credits at colleges and universities, the website states. The academy doesn’t offer scholarships but will help students raise money. Jobs and time away from the academy during the first six months “will be limited,” the website states.
Fredriksz called the academy’s approach to training an “in your face” experience.
“We are going to be blunt with them,” he said of prospective students. The millennial generation craves authenticity, he said. “They’re sick and tired of ‘fake.’ They’re sick and tired of religion,” Fredriksz said. “They need to discovery who they are.”
Mentors will guide them through the process of discovering their purpose as humans “and showing (them) that life is more than about themselves,” Fredriksz said. They’ll learn how they can serve others. Much of the instruction will happen during communal meals, he said. Dalton, a Swannanoa Valley native, said he plans to host that type gathering for the academy at the house he bought across from the former inn.
“Being able to relax with a meal is one of the best ways to connect over anything,” he said last week.
“We hope (students) will go out from here a ‘missional’ people,” Dimitris said, using a term that describes living the thoughts and actions of a person whose mission is to engage others in the gospel. Students will learn to live lives that show others what it’s like to “serve your neighbor, to love the Lord,” he said.
Some neighbors are as concerned about Dimitris’ past as they are about the oak trees cut from the property, the demolition that stripped the inn to concrete block and the hollowing out of the old Murray Hill Inn.
Nicholas Dimitris, a minister and then-real estate investor, was sentenced in U.S. District Court on Nov. 27, 2013 to a year in prison after pleading guilty to taking part in a plan to prop up Seven Falls, a failing luxury development in Henderson County.
Seven Falls in Henderson County was planned for 900 homes and an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course on 1,400 acres. The development soured with the economy in 2008-09. During the federal trial of developer Keith Vinson, prosecutors alleged conspirators created a scheme whereby “straw borrowers” would borrow money for lots in the development in hopes of preventing the development’s foreclosure.
Dimitris was one such “straw borrower,” according to a 2012 story in The Asheville Citizen-Times.
The failure of Seven Falls, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009, played a role in the closing of Bank of Asheville and Pisgah Community Bank. Vinson was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment after being convicted in October 2013 of conspiracy, bank and wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. Several other people served time or were placed on probation.
Dimitris’ history troubles Wallace and Fisher, and the sale of Fisher’s house didn’t help. She said she thought she was selling to the Daltons, but the check for the earnest money was written by New Day Holdings. Dimitris said New Day Holdings bought the lot, and the Daltons bought the house.
Wallace, who lives on Florida Avenue, put his house up for sale because of uncertainly about the academy and Dimitris.
“I had a vague idea I would sell some day,” Wallace said. “When all this went down, that sort of forced my hand and made me make a decision.”
Amy Nasta, who lives beside the academy, is disheartened by what she said has been its lack of interaction with neighbors.
"Having not introduced themselves or explained to the existing neighbors what to expect, this group has not set the stage for either a trusting or a neighborly relationship,” she said in an email. “I attended the (conditional use permit) hearing in December 2016. The scenario that was presented then is completely different from what is being represented on their website. I am concerned for my once tranquil and safe neighborhood."
Dimitris called the Seven Falls experience “one incredibly tough season” for him, one that court records and news accounts don’t begin to explain. During a nearly hour-long interview, he and Fredriksz repeatedly said the experience could be explained only over the course of a long meal.
Dimitris said he “understands” why neighbors would be concerned, given his past. But he’s willing to meet with them, as he said he has tried to do in the past.
“We love our neighbors,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting to know the neighbors.” He said he hopes to have supper with them.