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Wednesday, 09 June 2010 13:34

Lake Junaluska at risk of losing most meaningful conference

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Despite its peaceful atmosphere and long history as a spiritual center for Methodists, Lake Junaluska may lose the annual United Methodist Church conference it has hosted for more than half a century.

Space limitations at the Lake have prompted the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church to study alternative locations for its annual conference. A task force recently recommended moving the event to Greensboro on a trial basis in 2011.

“To lose a major conference is very difficult,” said Jimmy Carr, executive director of the Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center. “We feel a kinship with the WNC annual conference.”

The annual conference brings about 2,600 delegates who flock to Western North Carolina for the week-long conference every June — along with their families. In the process, they support the hotels, restaurants, and shops that have come to count on their business.

It is only one small slice of the 100,000 people who come to the Lake for conferences and conventions each year, but the potential loss is being lamented by tourism leaders.

“That would be a huge blow,” said Alice Aumen, chairperson of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. “Everybody looks forward to conference week.” According to Lake Junaluska’s estimates, the conference brings approximately $200,000 to the Lake Junaluska Assembly each year, mostly from lodging and meals.

In addition, the conference generates $300,000 of direct revenue to local motels, restaurants and other businesses. The multiplier effect across WNC communities could be up to $1 million, Carr said.

Clergy and lay members will vote on the proposal at this year’s annual conference on Saturday, June 12. During the annual conference, delegates from United Methodist churches from the Tennessee state line to east of Greensboro converge on the Lake to discuss church policies and ordain clergy.

A report released by the WNC Conference task force stated that Lake Junaluska’s Stuart Auditorium could accommodate only 2,000 of its total 3,500 delegates, though not all members attend each year. Parking, lodging and “meal options” are also severely limited, the report reads.

“I don’t think that anyone would say anything against Junaluska,” said Mark Barden, communications director for the WNC Conference. “It’s a wonderful place. It has a place in our hearts and our history. It’s just that it can’t accommodate what we need right now.”

The task force recommends moving the conference to Joseph S. Koury Convention Center, located at The Sheraton Greensboro Hotel, which would offer 988 hotel rooms, plentiful free parking and multiple meal options at a nearby mall.

Carr pointed out that while the location may accommodate more delegates, it is a secular venue, whereas Lake Junaluska has been a gathering place for Methodists for 100 years.

“That doesn’t mean that they can’t provide the services,” said Carr. “But they won’t be able to provide them the kind of surroundings, the settings, the natural places for worship and reflection that Lake Junaluska can provide.”

Many clergy members trace back their ordainment to Lake Junaluska, while delegates have grown accustomed to convening there year after year on what many call holy ground.

“There’s definitely a long history and a lot of sentimental attachment,” agreed Barden.

Decades ago, Stuart Auditorium had hosted Haywood County high school graduations, but space limitations at the facility forced that event off grounds as well.

Carr said Lake Junaluska leaders are presently considering expanding Stuart Auditorium or building a similar venue that will accommodate more people.

“It’s a 100-year-old building that’s been changed through the years, and it’s no doubt that Lake Junaluska needs a [larger,] different kind of space,” said Carr.

Space limitations actually brought the WNC Conference to the lake in the first place. Church leaders voted to move the event to Lake Junaluska after membership grew too large for the local church where the conference had been held before.

“They faced the same problems that we face now,” said Barden.

The WNC Conference has earlier voted on moving its annual conference away from the Lake, but that measure was defeated.

On Monday, Town of Maggie Valley clerk Vickie Best sent out a memo to local leaders and business owners, campaigning for another such defeat.

“Now is the time to talk to the attendees staying at your motel, shopping at your store, or eating at your restaurant,” the email read. “Encourage those folks to vote to stay at Lake Junaluska, where they can enjoy the beauty of the Lake, and the comfort of our valley and mountains.”

Meanwhile, the potential loss of revenue would prove bad timing for the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

Starting this year, Lake Junaluska will see around $1 million of its operating revenue disappear over the next four years. Instead of subsidizing operations and ministry programming, that money will be reallocated to debt reduction and capital improvements.

The Methodist conference and retreat center has received a long-standing annual subsidy from the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, paid by churches from across the nine-state region.

But the subsidy for operations and programming will be reduced over the next four years, which has already forced the Lake to work harder to recruit more conferences to the site to make up the difference.

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