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BLACK MOUNTAIN – The 1,200-acre Lifeway Ridgecrest Conference Center, a Christian retreat center in operation for over a century, is for sale.

The Christian conference center's owner, LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tennessee, approved the move in a virtual board of trustees meeting April 23. The company cited the financial stress of owning such a large operation, particularly in the uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic, as one reason for selling.

"This was a painful decision,” LifeWay CEO Ben Mandrell said in a press release. “LifeWay’s leaders have prayed over this decision and looked at multiple options to keep Ridgecrest. The more than 100-year-old conference center has a rich heritage and spiritual legacy for Southern Baptists. However, the decision is a necessary one.”

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Ridgecrest Conference Center and its affiliated summer camps draw 70,000 people annually, according to the release. Chartered in 1907, Ridgecrest held its first event in 1909, while Camp Ridgecrest for Boys has been in operation since 1929 and Camp Crestridge for Girls since 1955.

The board said in the release it hopes to find a buyer who would continue the operation as a Christian retreat center. The center has had a long affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention.

The press release did not list a sale price. Buncombe County tax records show some 80 buildings on one 689-acre parcel, but records offer no assessed value for the overall property, as it's a religious nonprofit institution exempt from property taxes.

Art Snead, executive director at Ridgecrest, said the operation employs 85-full-time workers, and the number of part-time employees varies with the season. Regarding the sale, Snead said Ridgecrest is "near the beginning of what is expected to be a long process."

"There are no potential buyers lined up and no deal in place," Snead said.

'Caught everybody by surprise'

Black Mountain Mayor Don Collins said the announcement "caught everybody by surprise," as "from my understanding, they were making money." Ridgecrest leadership said the center remains profitable.

Ridgecrest lies just outside the Black Mountain town limits, but its guests often venture into the quaint mountain town known for its restaurants and shops.

"It just makes you apprehensive, because right now, we don’t know exactly what they'll be doing with it," Collins said April 27. "Hopefully, it'll be along the same lines as a (Christian retreat and meeting) venue and keep bringing folks in. Black Mountain is a tourist town, just like Asheville is a tourist town, so it means a lot to our shops and our stores here in town."

As Ridgecrest is not in the town limits, the Black Mountain Board of Aldermen or other town officials would have no say in future development.

Why sell?

LifeWay issued a "frequently asked questions" release with the press release, including one about why the center is being sold and addressing profitability.

"It’s true that Ridgecrest Conference Center and Summer Camps is operating at a profit, mostly due to the significant investments LifeWay has made into the boys and girls camps held during the summer months but also impacted by financial progress for the conference center," the FAQ states. "Unlike our decision to sell Glorieta Conference Center (in 2013 in New Mexico), which was losing money on an annual basis and had significant deferred maintenance, the decision to sell Ridgecrest is more about our ability to ensure Ridgecrest’s future while investing in other areas of LifeWay’s ministry."

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LifeWay has been "clarifying the focus" of its mission, and "we’ve been asking whether or not owning and maintaining a conference center is the wisest way forward in terms of stewardship," the FAQ states. "Owning a conference center and adjoining camps with many buildings and 1,200 acres already requires significant operational and financial investment. Furthermore, Ridgecrest will require a significant increase in financial investment over the next 10 years."

Founded in 1891, LifeWay Christian Resources is a self-supporting nonprofit and one of the world’s largest providers of Christian resources, including Bibles, books, Bible studies, Christian music and movies, gifts and church supplies, as well as camps and events, according to the release. 

Uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 crisis also plays a role in the decision to sell, the CEO said. Like many hospitality businesses in Buncombe County, Ridgecrest temporarily stopped hosting groups in late March to comply with the county's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order, as well as statewide orders issued by Gov. Roy Cooper.

"As a matter of fiscal stewardship during such an uncertain season, LifeWay must control costs and manage resources in order to continue serving local churches in the most effective way,” Mandrell said, adding that owning the facility requires a significant and increasing financial investment.

“As we’ve been clarifying the focus of LifeWay’s strategic mission, we’ve been asking whether or not owning and maintaining a conference center is the wisest way forward in terms of stewardship,” Mandrell said. “While LifeWay will continue to host camps and events, we realize we don’t need to own a hospitality facility to provide those experiences.”

In short, LifeWay needs to focus on its core ministry.

"Owning a conference center will require more financial investment than we can bear,” Mandrell said.

Looking for a similar organization to buy

LifeWay's preference is to find a buyer "that would continue to offer a Christian conference center environment and the operations of the boys and girls camps," Mandrell said, adding that the center is well-positioned because of investments LifeWay has made.

“Finding a buyer who can make the ongoing investments necessary to maintain Ridgecrest’s current high standards of hospitality and service is the right thing to do for the future of Ridgecrest and LifeWay," Mandrell said.

LifeWay is looking for a buyer for the entire operation and all facilities, and it would "welcome ownership interest from other Southern Baptist Convention entities, state conventions and ministries," according to the FAQ. 

"Knowing the value of Ridgecrest to Southern Baptists, we confidentially informed the SBC Executive Committee President and CEO of our situation and our desired intent, upon Board approval, to make Ridgecrest available for the future to our Southern Baptist family," the FAQ states.

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Mayor Collins said the Town of Black Mountain would like to see a continued similar use at Ridgecrest. Several Christian retreat centers call the eastern part of Buncombe County home.

"Like Montreat, Blue Ridge Assembly, Cragmont Assembly and Christmount Assembly, they’re all parts of our little intertwined fabric of this town," Collins said. "They're not in the city limits, but they're part of what makes this community unique."

Waiting word on summer camps

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Ridgecrest has suspended hosting events until the end of May. A reopening date will be based on guidance from the government and health authorities.

"We know conferences and events will look different due to COVID-19, both in the short and possibly longer terms," the FAQ states. "The Ridgecrest team is developing plans and making adjustments to enable us to host guests and events safely and effectively once restrictions are eased."

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As far as holding camps this summer, those decisions will most likely be based on the COVID-19 situation, not the decision to sell, LifeWay stated. 

"Our Ridgecrest Summer Camps team is continuing to monitor COVID-19 developments and plan for various scenarios this summer," the FAQ stated. "The health and safety of our campers and staff is of utmost importance to us."

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