MRA: Assessment finds 'village alternative' is not adequate in place of lodge | Opinion

Burnet Tucker
Guest columnist
A drawing outlining the "village" alternative, which includes a new lodge to be built between Galax House and Hickory and Reynolds lodges.

In mid-July, members of two Montreat families approached the Montreat Conference Center with an alternative concept for the development of new lodging in Montreat to serve the conference center’s ministry and mission. These neighbors asked that the conference center board analyze their ideas for the site of our proposed lodge by engaging our design team, which includes representatives from Samsel Architects and the Frank L. Blum Construction Company.

Since the project first became public in February, our board has repeatedly made itself available to receive and consider input about the proposed lodge on Assembly Drive, and we agreed to do so again, at our own expense. As chair of the board, I was especially keen to conduct an assessment as these neighbors were stating publicly in the Black Mountain News and elsewhere that their proposal would meet the conference center’s goals at a fraction of the cost. Our design team very much wanted to see this plan, and for the last month we have studied and assessed its attributes and claims.

That detailed assessment has produced the expert conclusion that, in fact, the neighbors’ alternative falls far short of meeting the conference center’s goals for the project. The plan recommends eliminating 11,000 square feet of rooms and meeting spaces and in its place proposes an inefficient, multi-building design that would be linked by an unspecified network of ramps, sidewalks, and parking areas. The neighbors urge the saving of trees and green space, and yet they propose removing 30 underground parking spaces from the existing plan; the resulting above-ground parking lots would require eliminating much of that green space.

There are other complications. The alternative concept imagines that the old lodges – Chestnut, Lord, and Galax – can be renovated to a durable standard at a modest cost, avoiding the reality that two of the three outdated facilities are in terrible shape. Further, the plan imagines that all three lodges can be updated without triggering legal compliance with current building codes, including life safety, fire safety, and ADA accessibility. In fact, all three lodges would need more than cosmetic changes in a commercial renovation, and the older two in particular would need substantial structural upgrades to the building envelopes and systems to return to adequate use.

In addition, multiple buildings would require multiple mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems and multiple sprinkler systems. The neighbors’ suggested sticker price for their alternative plan – $5.5 to 7 million – is too low once the realities of commercial renovation and costly restoration are realized. Overall, the dollars the neighbors are asking our board to spend would represent an inefficient investment of resources for the return it would provide the conference center’s ministry.

On Thursday our board reviewed the design team’s report. Members concluded, as we have before, that the proposed new lodge would simply make better use of the property and address our ministry needs and the needs of the community. The single-building design with underground parking adds significant efficiency and provides a much better experience for guests, while the remaining green spaces can be better used for the enjoyment and appreciation of guests and the surrounding community. To cite one example, our board views ADA accessibility not just as a requirement but as a goal. Further, we have identified LEED certification as another goal of the new lodge project, an objective we feel is in reach with new construction. In summary, the board believes that the proposed new lodge that our design team has produced can be built at a cost that represents good stewardship of our resources and that will run more efficiently in the long term.

Finally, for those with an interest in preservation, remember this – the conference center remains Montreat’s original steward. While not all buildings can be renovated successfully to meet the needs of our changing church, the conference center has spent millions of dollars renovating Assembly Inn, Anderson Auditorium, Robert Lake Park, and other facilities on our campus that are core to our ministry. We have placed more than half of our land into conservation to be used for hiking and the enjoyment of all. These are the physical resources people associate with Montreat, and the new lodge will soon join them in contributing positively to the long-term prosperity of Montreat and to the conference center’s ministry.

As we move forward, we will continue to be good neighbors and community members, balancing the importance of Montreat’s spiritual mission with its history and the natural beauty of our surroundings. Most importantly, we will maintain our focus so that we continue to serve the Presbyterian Church and the church of Jesus Christ with vitality far into the future.

Burnet Tucker is the chair of the Montreat Conference Center Board and owns a home in Montreat.