At the September 2020 Executive Committee meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention, a recommendation was made and passed by the Committee to suspend operations at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center in Toccoa on Sept. 30 and engage in discussions with an interested buyer. Since that time the Toccoa property has been purchased by Pine Cove Christian Camps (more on that later).
Certainly, thousands of Georgia Baptists and other Christian and non-profit entities have enjoyed the conference center at Toccoa through the years. I had the privilege of benefiting from the comfort, relaxation, and inspiration afforded at this wonderful retreat center scores of times since returning to Georgia in 1990.
Bill Wheeler and his staff were always hospitable and gracious to their guests. The accommodations were always clean and comfortable, and the food was always well prepared and delicious. The serenity of the location and the inspiration of the teaching and learning experiences provided great spiritual blessings.
Therefore, I must say that I was disappointed when I heard that the conference center was for sale. My first thought was, “Southern Baptists no longer have the Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina and the Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico and the Norman Park Conference Center in South Georgia, now the property of Shorter University, is no longer being used as an encampment/retreat center. It is sad that we, as Baptists, are reducing our footprint in Georgia and in the nation by no longer hosting people in these strategic sites designed for teaching and spiritual growth.”
I can only imagine the tension that a conference center administrator must feel as he seeks to determine what to charge those who attend his camps/conferences. If he charges too much, he will eliminate many of the campers who really need a Christian camping experience. If he charges too little, he may have more individuals to come to the conference center, but the smaller amount they would be required to pay would not be sufficient to cover all the costs for current expenses and future renovations.
For the past few months, I have heard quite a few people across the state express regret and disappointment that the conference center was being sold. So, I began to inquire about the reason for selling the Toccoa property. Once I discovered the facts, I realized that I need never jump to conclusions or make decisions before gathering all the available information.
Having a better understanding of why the Executive Committee voted to sell the conference center I called Thomas Hammond, the Executive Director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, and requested the privilege of writing a commentary to explain what I had learned, hoping that it might help others understand the reasoning behind the sale of the property.
First of all, I discovered that the dam that holds Lake Louise in place is approximately 80 years old, which is the “maximum life” for an earthen dam.
Both spillways must be reconstructed and the toe pipe that runs at the lowest point of the dam is also leaking. Additionally, water is seeping through the dam. The scope of the work that will be required to rectify this problem is enormous and the estimated cost is $8.3 million.
Second, I discovered that the average age of the building at the Conference Center is 55 years.
The typical lifespan of such buildings is basically 40 years without ongoing renovations. I discovered that asbestos is in most of the older buildings. I was informed that because of deferred maintenance issues the cost of renovating the buildings up to the needed specifications would be $12.5 million.
Buildings constructed before 1970 are likely to contain asbestos; and airborne asbestos can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma. When the money is not available to properly maintain buildings, and the servicing of HVAC systems is delayed, the air quality is compromised and staff and conference attendees may be negatively impacted by the allergens or toxins that fill the air due to poor maintenance standards.
Third, over the past 20 years the conference center reported an average annual net loss of $543,000 or $10.8 million and by reason of necessity was subsidized by the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Fourth, the conference center has been underutilized resulting in insufficient funds to cover basic operating costs and capital needs.
I was also informed that only 30 percent of those who utilized the facility were Georgia Baptists.
Fifth, Georgia Baptist still have two splendid conference centers in Pinnacle Retreat Center and Camp Kaleo Retreat Center.
These two camps are smaller than the conference center at Toccoa, but they have typically operated in the black.
Sixth, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board leadership has affirmed there is no intention of getting out of the camping/conference/retreat ministry but acknowledged that it is not financially prudent to use a facility with Toccoa’s unique challenges.
Seventh, Georgia Baptists have three institutions of higher education with property altogether suitable for hosting conferences and retreats.
I have spoken to each of the presidents of these schools and they have unanimously indicated that they would be willing to make their property available for camps and retreats as much as their schedule permits. Dr. Steve Echols, president of Brewton Parker College, seemed to express the sentiment of all three presidents when he stated, “As one of three Georgia Baptist schools of higher education, we are delighted to support the mission of Georgia Baptists and camps are an impactful way to help reach our state for Christ.”
Eighth, Pine Cove, a Texas based retreat center, has purchased the Toccoa property.
They paid $1 million for the property and have agreed to assume all the liabilities regarding the property including the dam. They will be razing most of the standing buildings and developing a master plan for a first-class retreat center. The Convention leadership negotiated plans that will permit the GBMB to have exclusive weekends prior to and post summer and we have a 50 percent discount for Georgia Baptist students to attend their camp program in the summer. Pine Cove is known for having a high quality, Gospel centered camping ministry.
Howard Hendricks, the renowned preacher and professor at Dallas Theology Seminary was one of the founders of Pine Cove Christian Camps in Tyler and Columbus, Texas. Jeremy Morton, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, stated, “The Morton family has been eternally blessed by attending the camp at Pine Cove since 2016. My wife and our three children have been remarkably blessed through this ministry. Other than being in our church it is the spiritual highlight of our year. For our family it is like a Vacation Bible School on steroids.”