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N.C. retreat center drastically reduces staff

The Mountain’s board lays off CEO and half of staff.
By Donald E. Skinner
11.8.10

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youths on a path at The Mountain

Youth follow a mountain path at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, N.C. (The Mountain)

In a drastic, eleventh-hour effort to keep from shutting its doors, The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center, a Unitarian Universalist camp and program center in the Great Smoky Mountains, cut half its staff in October, including longtime CEO Tom Warth.

The center, which sits atop a mountain near Highlands, N.C., is beloved, especially by UUs in the Southeast, as a site for youth conferences, church retreats, and social justice institutes. But an unrelenting recession has meant fewer guests and declining revenues.

On October 5, the center’s board of trustees let five staff members go, saving around $300,000 annually and allowing the center to remain in operation through the end of the year with the addition of funds that will be raised.

In an email that went out to hundreds of supporters on October 7 explaining the staff cuts, board chair Trudy Deyle and board member Bruce Kirkman, who is liaison to The Mountain staff, wrote, “If there is any chance of operating past this month, drastic action had to be taken immediately. Put simply, we are running out of cash.”

Those let go, in addition to Warth, who has been CEO for 20 years, were UU singer-songwriter Shelley Jackson Denham, director of residencies; Alisa Pykett, director of programs; Taylor O’Connor, manager of youth and young adult programs; and Lauren Shaffer, director of marketing and sales. Three other key staff members chose to leave voluntarily rather than work in an uncertain environment. They are Mark Walker, manager of food services; Susanne Walker, registrar; and Kerry Kennedy, housekeeping superintendent.

In an interview October 21, Kirkman said no staff members, including Warth, were being blamed for the center’s financial situation. “The financial times have just caught us. We have physical assets, we have goodwill, we just don’t have cash. Groups that used to bring 60 people now come with 20 or 30.”

The October 7 email, however, did state that the board “no longer had confidence that the CEO could lead us to fiscal viability.” Still, said Kirkman, “We have the highest regard for Tom. He is very passionate and totally committed to The Mountain.”

Kirkman said the staff cuts included the four highest paid staff members. “That’s where we could save the most money. We had no other place to go for a quick change in the cash flow.” He noted that other staff and volunteers are filling in at critical positions and that all programs scheduled through the end of the year will go on as planned.

“We’re going to have to know our financial situation by then,” he said, adding, “We are absolutely committed to keeping The Mountain here for future generations.” He said The Mountain needs to raise a minimum of $200,000 by the end of December and $300,000 in 2011. The center’s budget for the year ending December 31 is $1.3 million. About a fifth of The Mountain’s revenue comes from donations and the rest from program participants.

(Donations may be sent through The Mountain’s website or to The Mountain, P.O. Box 1299, Highlands, N.C. 28741.)

Kirkman said some staff would have to be added early in 2011 if the center is to remain open. He said analyses are underway to determine how The Mountain can continue. Already the decision has been made to cut back next year on proprietary programs––ones developed by center staff. “Over the past five-plus years we have done a series of ‘Mountain Design’ programs intended to reach a broader audience with our messages of peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability,” said Kirkman. “Unfortunately, these have proved to be not economically justifiable, with the exception of two celebrity ‘programs’ with Holly Near and Ysaye Barnwell.”

Another possibility is to close in the winter. The Mountain is open year round. “I’d hate to do that,” he said. “We host many winter cons for youth, and what they take away is wonderful.” It seems likely, he said, that prices will increase. “We’re well underpriced. I know people will take it hard, but if we want this facility to be here for our kids we’re going to have to incrementally raise prices.”

Kirkman lauded Warth for one of his last actions, selling 82 acres of The Mountain’s property for $5 million to a group that put it into a conservation easement, protecting the property from further development. The easement covers everything except for the two acres at the top of the mountain where most of the center’s buildings are. The easement allows the private buyer to take a tax deduction and permits the center to continue to use the land and possibly buy it back at some point.

That move allowed The Mountain to pay off $4.5 million in debt. The rest of the money was used to keep the center going this year. It still has about $550,000 in debt. “If the economy hadn’t gone into a tailspin we’d be sitting pretty,” Kirkman said.

The center has about 4,000 guests annually. Revenues are down 25 percent, said Kirkman. About half the center’s events involve UU groups, including youth conferences and retreats for churches, small groups, and individuals, but they only generate about 40 percent of the center’s income because UUs often get discounted rates. Others who use the center include Audubon groups, a gay men’s group called Gay Spirit Visions, and college groups. The Atlanta Knitting Guild holds a weekend “knitting fest” twice a year.

Even though Warth, 67, had planned to retire next summer, he said it was a shock to be dismissed. The board overreacted, he said, in cutting so many staff. “For all of its 31 years The Mountain has had financial challenges. We were up against the wall many times. Yes, we have to deal with this situation, but I don’t think it warranted letting people go who have a combined 93 years of experience at The Mountain (including those who left voluntarily).”

He said the staff had been working on cost-saving measures, including cutting their own salaries and job sharing, and had been pursuing fundraising initiatives. He said those initiatives were not given enough time to work and that some trustees had refused to participate in fundraising.

There are things the staff and board could and should have done differently in recent years, Warth said. “We just hired a new marketing director. We didn’t have a good web presence, and we had too few people out talking to congregations and other clients. In fundraising we spent too many years going after the same 500 people when we should have had 5,000. I will also own that we operated in a culture of scarcity rather than one of abundance.” The center’s location at the top of 4,200-foot Little Scaly Summit also increased its costs.

He added, “We underpriced ourselves because of pressure from UUs and our members. I listened to that drumbeat too long.” One of Warth’s passions is creating social justice programs that draw from more than the center’s UU base. That proved hard to do. “Our focus on peace and justice and interfaith work was a tough sell.”

He said he always wanted The Mountain to be more than “a small summer camp center for middle class UUs.” He added, “There would be support for that going forward, but it wouldn’t be living up to its potential. The place is too rich a resource for it not to become something truly meaningful in this pluralistic world.”

Warth said he and his wife, Jane, the center’s longtime data administrator until retiring recently, have given more than $130,000 to The Mountain over the years.

Shelley Jackson Denham said her parting from the center after 21 years is “painful.” She added, “Something drastic did have to be done, but it could have been handled differently. The process was too corporate, without the UU values we hold dear.”

“I’m trying to remain in the mindset the trustees were trying to do what is best and right for The Mountain,” Denham said. “I do hope the way this was handled will cause people to think about our Third and Fourth Principles––acceptance of one another and a free and responsible search for truth.”

Denham and her husband, Ian, began working at The Mountain in 1989. He continues to work there, as facilities director. She said her years at The Mountain allowed her to have profound experiences. “We were allowed to touch and be touched by so many different people, religions, cultures, orientations. We got to minister to and be ministered to. We worked so hard to build a center that modeled the world as it could and should be. It was much more than a career. It was a calling.”

As to what happens next, she said, “My biggest concern is that The Mountain survives. I hope it can continue to provide respite and learning and that it keeps the capacity to influence lives and promote Unitarian Universalist values.”

Denham is the author of five hymns in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s hymnal Singing the Living Tradition. Denham, her husband, and the Warths perform as the Mountain Quartet, a singing group that has produced many CDs and sung for many UU congregations and at two General Assemblies. She said the quartet will continue, although probably with a different name.

Dr. Anthony Stringer was chair of The Mountain board from 2000 to 2007. He said The Mountain has regularly had to deal with “pretty significant financial challenges.”

He noted, “Tom has always faced pretty steep challenges. I think he did an amazing job with the resources he had. It’s important in the current situation that we honor the 20-plus years that Tom and Jane Warth and Shelley and Ian Denham put in. They ran The Mountain creatively and courageously through some difficult times.”

He suggested it might be time for The Mountain to think about “actively partnering” with like-minded groups whose centers are also struggling.

Kirkman said remaining staff members are working hard to keep the center going. “We’re out there making sales calls for next year. A plea also went out to friends of The Mountain. In the weeks after the staff cuts were announced on October 5, the center received more than $66,000 in donations. Part of those donations can be used to match a $50,000 challenge gift the center also received.

Over the years The Mountain has found a place in the hearts of youth and adults who come back year after year. Sarah Dubendorff, 16, from the UU Congregation of Lakeland, Fla., has attended camp there for 11 years. “Growing up atheist and UU makes one always a little different,” said Dubendorff. “Not even my best friends understand me the way my friends at The Mountain do. When my life was the hardest I looked forward to my two weeks at The Mountain. It is my sincere hope that one day I will drive my children up to The Mountain for their first summer there. The Mountain has been a part of me longer than any friend.”


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