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Wednesday, 06 March 2013 15:15

Emotions run high as Lake Junaluska task force votes for merger

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fr lakejmoreA Lake Junaluska task force voiced overwhelming support last week for merging the 765-home community with the town of Waynesville before a packed audience of homeowners.

SEE ALSO: Ongoing coverage

The 14-member task force has spent 10 months weighing the future course of the community with century-old roots as a summer Methodist retreat. Financial solvency was the deciding factor for those in favor of being absorbed into Waynesville’s town limits. The community does not have the critical mass nor economies of scale to go it alone, especially given the costly repairs it would face during the next decade to fix its crumbling infrastructure, task force members said.

“The staggering costs of replacing our water and sewer lines and roads and infrastructure will continue to fall on property owners at a rate many of us would not be able to absorb,” said Don Rankin, president of the Lake Junaluska Property Owners’ Organization and a task force member.

Only one member of the task force spoke in favor of autonomy, calling on Lake Junaluska’s homeowners to band together and form their own, independent town instead.

“Lake Junaluska has a strong identity and history that I treasure,” Mary Allen Conforti said in an impassioned speech.

Conforti comes from a long lineage of Methodist preachers, whose descendents still make up the backbone and identity of Lake Junaluska today.

Indeed, the issue of maintaining its identity has been a cornerstone of discussions during the past year.

But the majority of the task force believes the choice isn’t an either/or proposition. Joining the town of Waynesville would not compromise Lake Junaluska’s identity — rather it is the only way to preserve it, they concluded.

“I think that the only way that the Lake is going to maintain its identity in the future is by being realistic about the economic realities that the Lake faces,” said Kelley Bonfoey, a task force member and Junaluska resident.

Remaining autonomous could actually jeopardize Junaluska’s identity if it plunges the community into financial insolvency, task force members maintained.

“Staying the same would be a money pit,” said Ron Phelps, a Junaluska resident, task force member and retired businessman. “We are too small to take it on, my business instinct tells me.”

Lake Junaluska faces roughly $10 million in street, water and sewer line repairs during the next decade, according to an engineering study commissioned jointly by the town of Waynesville and the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. That cost would be absorbed and picked up by the town under a merger.

“Waynesville is better equipped to move quickly to address the problems,” said Joe Stowe, a member of the task force.

 

Conference center on the line

The burden to Junaluska homeowners aside — the costly infrastructure repairs would be a drain on the already precarious bottom line of the Methodist conference center that lies at the heart of community.

The costly tab under a go-it-alone scenario would weaken the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, according to Buddy Young, the director of Lake Junaluska’s public works department and member of the task force.

“The most important factor to protect the identity of this community is the health of the conference center. It is not who we pay for water or who picks up our trash,” said Young.

The Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center hosts tens of thousands of visitors a year who flock to its campus for religious retreats and conferences. But it has been struggling financially. It barely broke even last year — marking only the second time in the past decade it didn’t lose money.

But it was only accomplished thanks to generous donors who made more than $200,000 in unrestricted contributions to help cover general operating expenses and overhead.

Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center has developed a 10-year plan for a major overhaul of its campus, including massive renovations and newly constructed facilities. Leaders hope the improvements will pay off, bolstering its status as a signature Christian retreat center as well as building a new line of secular resort business. (Read The Smoky Mountain News next week for an article detailing this campus master plan.)

Although some homeowners in the audience said they were willing to “dig a little deeper” to retain their autonomy, where would that leave the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, asked Ron Clauser, chairman of the task force and a Junaluska resident.

“Who can’t afford to do it is the conference and retreat center. They are the ones that can’t afford to do it,” Clauser said. “We need a strong conference and retreat center to do ministry for the United Methodist Church.”

And if homeowners have money to spare, they should marshal their financial resources to donate to the fundraising campaign the conference center has launched to pull off the campus master plan, Clauser said.

Concerns over identity clearly weighed on task force members, even though they ultimately chose to cast their lot with the town of Waynesville.

Ed LaFontaine, a task force member, said it has been a “difficult and emotional issue” but one that came down to financial stability.

Ron Phelps, a task force member and Junaluska resident, also preached pragmatism when explaining his pro-merger position.

“Emotions are wonderful,” Phelps said. “But sometimes an emotional response does not allow you to see a practical view. There is no denying it, it is change, and many of us have difficulties when change occurs. But change we must.”

In the long view, Lake Junaluska has been on a constant trajectory of change, a slow but incremental departure from its traditional Methodist pedigree — one that is bound to continue as new homeowners move in.

“To stay the way we are is not an option,” said Bill King, a Junaluska retiree who grew up coming to Lake Junaluska as a boy in the 1940s and 1950s, when the lake was populated by the families of Methodist preachers.

King recalled memories of those days, memories clearly shared by many in the audience.

“Jim Hart used to sell banana splits for 35 cents in the soda shop,” King said.

But there’s no soda shop anymore, and certainly not 35-cent banana splits, he said.

 

From the audience

Several members of the audience spoke up after the task force members made their speeches and voted, and most who came to the microphone decried the idea of merging with Waynesville.

Paul Starnes, a Junaluska property owner, said the Lake should not forever sell out its future over fear of short-term financial hurdles.

“Lake Junaluska is about much more than water and sewer and garbage and roads. These concerns must never be allowed to become more important than who we are and why we exist,” Starnes said. “Economies of scale are also important but should not be allowed to dictate the future. Surely the God that motivated our founders to birth this institution will motivate this generation to save it.”

Starnes said he fears Lake Junaluska could lose its religious ties and become “just another subdivision.”

Some criticized the decision as too rushed. Despite an intensive, research-driven, analysis-rich process with myriad public input meetings, homeowners complained they haven’t been able to digest the issue at the same pace as the task force.

“I feel like we are jumping into something here. I feel like we are going into something entirely too fast,” said Gretchen Branning, longtime Junaluska property owner.

Many who spoke up at last week’s meeting did so for the first time in the process, despite more than eight public meetings during several months that all allowed unlimited time for public comment and questions.

The time frame for a decision was accelerated in the past couple of months, however, as the task force realized the window was closing to consecrate a merger, should that be the direction the community wanted to take. The N.C. General Assembly must approve a merger, and the deadline for introducing a state bill is mid-March. The legislative window would not come around again for another two years.

This week, the results of a survey sent to all 800 property owners at Lake Junaluska will be publicly announced. The highly anticipated survey results will be a strong indicator of public sentiment. Are the concerns voiced at last week’s meeting merely a vocal minority turning out at the 11th hour? Or is there truly a groundswell of opposition among homeowners over annexation into Waynesville’s town limits?

Conforti, the lone task force member against merging with Waynesville, said she was disappointed there wasn’t more of a groundswell in support of Lake Junaluska to form its own town.

But unlike the vast majority of those in the room who were well into their retirement years already, Conforti is far from that day — a year she pegs around 2045.

“I am old enough to remember Junaluska’s past, but I am also young enough to envision its future — a future that I plan to be a part of in 30, 40, even 50 years,” Conforti said. “I want to preserve what is desirable about Lake Junaluska so when it is my turn to retire here and have our grandchildren visit here, we still have a unique Lake Junaluska environment.”

 

‘We are one’

Those speaking in favor of a merger with Waynesville returned time and again to a simple fact: Waynesville is a first-rate town. It has exemplary leaders, a well-run town hall, a sound budget and healthy bank account, and generally has its act together.

The town’s current leaders were also heralded as “progressive,” a philosophical posture that by-and-large aligns with the unique demographics of Junaluska homeowners.

But can Junaluska always count on that?

“Waynesville is a wonderful place, but what happens when they change the city council or change the mayor in 10 years? How does that change Junaluska?” asked Jake Martinson, a Junaluska property owner. “This is irrevocable. We can’t go back to where we are. We can’t get out. We can’t be independent.”

Conforti, like her counterparts on the task force, agreed Waynesville is a “desirable” place.

“I stand firm in the belief that Waynesville and Junaluska enrich each other in numerous ways,” Conforti said. “I feel that the current Waynesville leadership is supportive of Lake Junaluska’s identity, but will that always be the case?”

Task force members repeatedly referenced the Hazelwood analogy — citing the former standalone town of Hazelwood on Waynesville’s borders that went broke two decades ago and was taken in by Waynesville.

Phelps said Hazelwood was already part of Waynesville when he moved here, but even newcomers like himself quickly came to know it as “Hazelwood.”

“And they don’t even have a lake,” Phelps said, pointing to the obvious geographic feature unique to the community. “The lake alone would guarantee our continued identity.”

While Waynesville’s leaders haven’t formally weighed in — their vote will be held on March 12 — town board members have all but extended an open invitation to Lake Junaluska, if that’s what their community wants.

“When you get down to it, it is about people,” said Lee Galloway, a task force member and longtime former town manager of Waynesville. “I believe the town and community should join together as one. For 100 years, the lake and the town have been important to each other, supported each other and benefited from each other. We go to church together, share the same schools, the same social groups, volunteer for the same organizations — we are one.”

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