In his memoir, Montreat: A Retreat for Renewal, former MRA president Calvin Grier Davis described the decisions and rationale that led to the formation of the Town of Montreat in 1968. In the run-up to the first election, Davis noted, “It was assumed by many on the Board, and some of the citizens, that the officers of the Mountain Retreat Association would be elected to serve on the Town Council, that their experience would be available to administer the affairs of the town and there would be little change in the Town of Montreat.”
A page later, Davis reported the election outcome: Neither he nor MRA vice president Ivan B. Stafford had received a majority of votes. The new town would be served by new leadership in the valley. Montreat had entered a new age.
Institutional leadership in the valley expanded again in 1974 when the MRA and Montreat College agreed to separate. From that time the MRA, town, and college adapted to changing roles and circumstances, each forging a path through financial pressures, theological disagreements, and occasionally each party’s reluctance to acknowledge its dependence on the other two. Sometimes conflicts erupted that were not easily solved, instead spilling out into the public and creating the impression that Montreat’s three institutions never got along at all.
In fact, the reality has been somewhat more nuanced and, dare I say, productive. While coming to agreement has sometimes been difficult, any careful review of Montreat’s history reveals ways in which these three institutions have collaborated when necessary and acknowledged the goals of each for the benefit of all Montreat. One example: the Town of Montreat’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan, the production of which all three institutions supported with funding and participation.
The plan’s purpose was to take a broad look at Montreat and to reflect the community’s desires in ways that would aid decision makers in the years ahead in helping the town grow while preserving its “essential character.” Growth and character – some would argue that preserving Montreat’s character requires resisting growth and change, but in fact the narrative of our history draws the opposite conclusion. Change has been a constant in Montreat, and we have grown like all Christian communities must as we seek new and better understanding of God’s good purposes. Throughout this history, the town’s three institutions have maintained commitments and values, growing in ways that enhance institutional and community life while preserving aspects of the place that make Montreat unique.
The plan is complex, and one can find a phrase to support almost any position. Taken as a whole, however, it reflects the understanding that the forces that impact Montreat must be balanced carefully if Montreat is to carry on in ways that are relevant for this time and place.
The conference center’s decision to pursue a new lodge on Assembly Drive sprang from its missional needs, but also was shaped by lessons learned from recent events. Several years ago we observed the debate over the Town Hall location and drew the lesson that developing opportunities in and around our central campus would be preferable. (To that end, the MRA passed on the chance to acquire the disputed Town Hall site on Florida Terrace when it was listed again for sale.) The aforementioned Comprehensive Plan acknowledges institutional development in the town’s center as preferable, smarter growth for Montreat – to “focus and facilitate community activities, new development opportunities, and more intense use into the town’s center” and to “embrace opportunities for alternative forms of land development and housing types to broaden the range of housing choices for its citizens, visitors, students and faculty, and retirees while protecting the character of the community.”
Ah, but see, I’m doing what I warn folks not to do – quoting the parts of the plan that support my position. One can also pull quotes and figures from the plan that would support a different conclusion altogether. Still, if you read the whole plan, the picture presented is of the importance of balancing the needs of all, especially in the goals laid out as the plan casts its eye toward our future.
With this in mind, reflect for a moment on the proposal that the conference center is making in the building of a new lodge:
- We wish to build a lodge on property that we already use for that purpose.
- The site sits in the middle of town directly on Assembly Drive on property already zoned for the purpose and adjacent to other lodges.
- That the site is also adjacent to residential areas is an unremarkable fact of institutional life replicated all over Montreat. One can easily find residences and cottages next to and across the street from lodges, the tennis courts, parks and other recreation areas, Anderson Auditorium and other facilities.
- There’s nothing unprecedented, either, about the proposed lodge’s design. Montreat’s natural surroundings have always accommodated a range of architectural styles.
The new lodge would upgrade and expand our capacity to host guest groups considerably and would have a transformational impact on our ministry, but is not remotely a controversial or unprecedented idea in the context of Montreat’s historic use of land. The lodge does nothing to threaten Montreat’s essential character, and instead strengthens the conference center’s ability to preserve that character by providing hospitality to those who would venture here, reflecting missional commitments one can trace to the founding purposes of Montreat itself. Simply put, the proposed lodge represents a reasonable proposal for the continuation and expansion of our ministry.
As Grier Davis’s election fate reminds, the determination of Montreat’s essential character is not the conference center’s alone to define. Over the next few months we will navigate the Town of Montreat’s process of approval, and the preservation of the town’s character will be discussed and debated. (If you’d like to tell me what you think about Montreat’s essential character, I’d love to hear from you at the address email@example.com.) As usual, I’m optimistic that the process will affirm Montreat as both rooted in its original charter from 1897, providing “places for dwelling, permanently and temporarily, for health, rest, recreation, Christian work and fellowship…” and the ideal home for a forward-thinking and forward-moving conference center in the 21st century.
More to come!
Montreat Conference Center