Lake Junaluska, a century-old retreat for Methodist clergy and their families, will remain the favored venue for a major annual conference of the United Methodist Church.
The Western North Carolina Conference — a formal gathering of Methodist churches from the western half of the state — brings thousands of people to Lake Junaluska and Haywood County for an extended weekend every June. But space limitations had prompted the conference to consider a change in location to a Sheraton Hotel conference center in Greensboro.
Losing the conference would be a major economic blow not only to the Lake but to hotels and restaurants throughout Waynesville and Maggie Valley. Between half and two-thirds of conference attendees who stay overnight find lodging off Lake grounds.
Whether to change venues was put to a vote during the annual conference this past weekend. Lake Junaluska won out overwhelming with 1,007 votes, compared to 526 for moving it.
“Logistically, it would be better for us to have a bigger building, but as a far as the overall atmosphere of the conference, they prefer here,” said Roy Miller, a delegate from Mount Airy, N.C., and pastor of Mt. Moriah Methodist Church.
Jimmy Carr, executive director of Lake Junaluska Assembly, had no idea what to expect before the vote.
“The margin was so high. That was really affirming to us,” Carr said.
The conference was attended by 2,660 delegates representing Methodist churches across half the state — a territory reaching as far as Greensboro and Charlotte — to discuss church policies and finances and ordain clergy. Delegates often have their families and church lay people in tow, with the total number of people in town for the conference pegged at about 7,000.
Debbi Snipes has accompanied her husband, a minister from Charlotte, to the annual conference at the Lake for 17 years, along with her two daughters. It would be a “big mistake” to move the venue, she said.
“This is a family friendly place. This is a special place, and you can’t get that just anywhere,” said Snipes, who enjoys seeing the same families year after year. If the conference was moved to a Sheraton Hotel in Greensboro, “we wouldn’t go,” Snipes said.
The annual conference is only one small slice of the Lake’s conference business, which plays host to 100,000 people each year for dozens of conventions of both a spiritual and secular nature.
But this conference is by far its largest. The potential loss lit a fire under those in the tourism industry. Some nearby restaurants changed the lettering on their signboards to boast messages of support for keeping the conference at the Lake.
The annual conference brings in $200,000 of direct revenue to the Lake Junaluska Assembly and another $300,000 for local motels, restaurants and the like. The multiplier effect across WNC communities could be up to $1 million, Carr estimated.
The conference venue was the most hotly discussed topic of the weekend, said Miller.
“They mention waking up in the morning and seeing the cross, the mountains and the lake,” Miller said.
The majority felt the impersonal setting of a Sheraton Hotel would not nurture the fellowship found at the Lake, he said. Small prayer groups and impromptu religious discussions come naturally in intimate and inspirational settings found on Junaluska’s grounds, from the numerous gardens to lakeside benches. It would not be easy to duplicate that atmosphere in a hotel lobby.
“It is hard to imagine leaving the Lake because of the setting and significance of this place,” said Eddie Ingram, pastor at First Methodist Church in Charlotte.
Carr said the discussion leading up to the vote was heartfelt and emotional. One woman spoke about the personal transformation she feels when attending the conference at the Lake.
“They realized the specialness of Lake Junaulska,” Carr said. “They realized they are about doing church work and what better place to do it than Lake Junaluska, which has a common mission.”
The Lake made a couple of promises to keep the conference. A logistical challenge is posed by Stuart Auditorium, which seats 2,000 people and can’t accommodate all the delegates who attend. Other meeting halls and auditoriums on the Lake’s grounds will be rigged with live video streaming to allow people who can’t fit inside Stuart Auditorium to still participate in the proceedings.
The other promise is to work with the local tourism community to roll out the red carpet for conference attendees.
Of the 2,600 delegates who attended, only 800 rented hotel rooms or homes at the Lake itself, leaving a huge number to find lodging elsewhere. The conference wants the Lake to compile lodging information and negotiate discounts with local hotels during the conference weekend. In addition, the conference wants assurance that the local hotels and restaurants off the Lake grounds are prepped and ready to step up their hospitality the weekend of the conference.
“It is truly going to take the entire county working together to keep this event here in the long term. Lake Junaluska will need a strong partnership with the local community to accomplish that,” said Ken Howle, Lake Junaluska marketing director.