Over the last two weeks I’ve described a proposed new project in Montreat to construct modern lodging on the conference center campus, and I’ve made the case for its need. This week I want to tackle the question that has become the focus of discussion and contention: How did the conference center board select the proposed site for construction?
Having investigated the possibility of renovating one or more of our existing lodges without success, we began to look at the promise of new construction. The thought of a new building was daunting in one sense; the conference center has not constructed a new building of significant size in thirty years. Yet the opportunity to build new – rather than retrofit to accommodate the outdated – presented substantial advantages in design, cost savings, and a much easier path to maintain compliance with modern building codes.
The goals would remain the same: 1) a convenient location; 2) accessibility, particularly for older guests; and 3) privacy, in the form of private bathrooms. In particular, we greatly prioritized the goal of building in the center of town. With this in mind we considered our options:
Undeveloped land: One idea would be to build on one of the few remaining undeveloped parcels of land the conference center owns. Three of those options – land off Harmony Road, above Kentucky Road, and at the Lookout Road/Oklahoma Road intersection – were quickly discarded. The land in these areas is neither centrally located nor supported by any infrastructure. The fourth parcel sits across the street and up the hill from McAllister Gymnasium on Assembly Circle; it received consideration, but was also judged less than ideal for a host of reasons.
Acquisition: A second option would be to acquire a site, but the choices here were unattractive as well. First, options are greatly limited. Other institutional property in Montreat either wouldn’t be suitable, isn’t for sale, or both. Importantly, we recognize that our institutional partners all operate in the valley as distinct and important ministries of their own. We collaborate in many mutually beneficial ways, and changes in property ownership between us must serve the interests of both participating institutions. Such an opportunity that meets the goals of our search just doesn’t exist right now.
Campus redevelopment: In early discussions the staff resuscitated the 1993 plan to build an additional wing onto Assembly Inn, but this idea was quickly dismissed. Occupancy and revenue from the Inn’s recent renovation were still growing. Adding a new wing of rooms and facilities would create a significant disruption in that progress, and would do nothing to provide enhanced accommodations for groups seeking a Montreat lodge experience. Our search did, however, reveal one attractive option, as attention focused increasingly on two acres of our campus right in the middle of town.
The property contains six lodges. The three to the west – Reynolds, Hickory, and Walnut – have all been recently renovated and are in good shape. The other three, however – Galax, Chestnut, and the Lord Apartments – each have their challenges:
- Galax once served as a home for the conference center president, but it has not served as such since 2007. For the past fourteen years Galax has been a three-bedroom lodge used mostly to host conference leadership and families by night and for special events and meeting space for larger gatherings by day.
- Chestnut Lodge serves the hardy church groups in the summer who find its close quarters very charming. For most others, Chestnut’s charms prove rather elusive.
- Lord Apartments is used mainly to house mission volunteers. The air is moist, even for Montreat, courtesy of a tiny spring which trickles up from the ground under the building.
Contractors have judged that neither Chestnut nor Lord can be renovated in ways that will return a meaningful investment, and the three buildings together only house 34 people in 17 bedrooms combined. The site itself, on the other hand, offers enormous potential:
- The property is buildable. (One prospective architect walking the property judged it “a flat site.” Questioned on that perspective, he replied, “In Western North Carolina, this is a flat site.”)
- Its central location provides guests easy walking distance access to Anderson Auditorium and all of our primary program spaces as well as arts and recreation activities at Robert Lake Park and Bill Wilde Youth Center, Lake Susan, the Currie Craft Center, the Barn, Dowd Green, and Welch Field.
- The property is already used for the lodging of our guests, and a new lodge would reside alongside three neighboring lodges. There would be no change in use of the property, an important factor in any zoning or permitting discussion.
- Replacing Galax, Chestnut, and Lord would solve the expensive headache of maintaining three older, outdated lodges. Instead, a newly designed lodge could address parking, noise, and other issues that have prompted neighbor complaints with the existing lodges.
In a nutshell, our board and staff concluded that the site in question is an underutilized asset of our campus and the best choice to pursue our hospitality, programmatic, and financial goals for our mission and ministry.
And that’s what we still think. At its meeting this week, our board members carefully reviewed in detail the process by which the site selection had been made. They also scrutinized the staff’s earlier decision not to advance the idea of building a new wing onto Assembly Inn. After extensive discussion, the board left its current plans in place. In addition, board members directed that the schematic design period be extended to allow for additional input from neighbors and appointed a task force to converse with neighbors directly on the board’s behalf. The board also pledged to invest in expertise to mitigate concerns raised about traffic, noise, and the environment. (You may read the letter summarizing the board’s conclusions and invitation to neighbors here.) Finally, the task force set up a dedicated email address – email@example.com – to receive and curate public comment.
This adds some detail to our ongoing discussion about how the lodge fits into the conference center’s vision going forward, but where does that vision align with the larger trajectories of the church and the town that we serve? Next week, I’ll attempt to address some of those questions, so… More to come!
Montreat Conference Center