The Georgia Baptist Mission Board has gifted Norman Park Conference Center to Shorter University, leaving its Toccoa campus as its primary training and retreat center.
The transaction was approved by members of the Board’s Executive Committee during their March 15 meeting. Other business included affirming agency lobbyist Mike Griffin for remarks taken out of context by state legislators regarding proposed religious liberty legislation and a review of the 2014-2015 Annual Church Report dealing with the spiritual health of the convention and its 3,600 churches. A complete digest of the ACR report will be posted to The Index website on March 18.
In addressing the proposed action from the Administration Committee, Mission Board Executive Director J. Robert White compared the decline of the south Georgia facility to the similar fate of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conference center in Glorieta, NM.
Executive Committee members were informed that Norman Park will remain open and operate under its current schedule until further notice with all reservations being honored. The document detailing the gifting can be viewed here.
Both Norman Park and Glorieta were popular in their day but years of red ink from declining use had taken their toll. Glorieta had been losing $1-million for nearly 20 years before it was sold last year. In a similar vein, Norman Park was averaging between $300,000-$700,000 of red ink for the past several years.
Campus gifted to state convention in 1971
The facility, formerly known as Norman College, was gifted to the then-named Georgia Baptist Convention in 1971. The college had fallen on hard economic times and slumping enrollment when the state convention accepted the site to serve as a camp, conference, and retreat center. The Colquitt County site, originally 16 acres, now contains 32 acres.
White explained that Norman Park only had a 14% occupancy rate, even with the heavy sold-out summer schedules – and only 30% of those using the center were Baptists.
Auditors had been warning the agency for years about the financial liability of the ministry, he added. With a financial turnaround no longer on the horizon, it was time for the Mission Board to separate itself from the ministry.
The state executive then detailed how the Mission Board has equally assisted its three educational institutions – Shorter University in Rome, Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, and Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon – through times of economic hardship.
While some may question why the Board did not gift the conference center to Brewton-Parker, the closest of the three, White explained the transfer would have been more of a liability than an asset.
Brewton-Parker had a brush with bankruptcy in recent years and is only now getting back on financial sound footing. Giving it a property operating at a loss with no turn-around in sight would be like giving a drowning man an anchor, he explained.
Formerly offered to Brewton-Parker but financial problems clouded the gifting
White acknowledged that the Mission Board had offered the conference center to former Brewton-Parker President David Smith several years ago, then President Ergun Caner, and most recently Interim President Mike Simoneoux but little interest was shown. Current President Steve Echols, who will complete his first anniversary in May, was not consulted about the gifting due to the college’s recent financial problems.
The gift, valued at $4.2-million in a 2013 appraisal, allows Shorter to reflect the value of the facility on its books as it works within financial guidelines of the Department of Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Dowless said the asset transfer would be “a positive benefit to the University from a financial audit perspective.”
“Based on the history of the Board’s equal treatment of all three colleges, Shorter is the best option,” White concluded. The transaction, without deed restrictions, was referred to as a “win-win solution” for both parties.
No deed restrictions, Shorter not bound to a specific plan
While Shorter will explore expanding its educational opportunities, its ministry resource center and/or continuing the campus as an assembly at Norman Park, it noted that it was not bound to any specific plan.
Dowless noted that Shorter trustees were not aware of the gift prior to the Executive Committee meeting and they would be fully educated on the transaction at their upcoming meeting. He said a site visit had not occurred with any Shorter personnel to determine the state of the property and any needed upgrades or repairs.
Results of that study would help determine future use of the facility.
Executive Committee Chairman Mike Stone, speaking as a south Georgia pastor, stated that the Mission Board had made numerous good faith attempts to maintain the conference center for churches in the area. In a question-and-answer period during the discussion, Stone, – pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear – responded that Shorter would have the option of selling the property if it chose. Dowless agreed, but added that there were no such immediate intentions.
Founded as a Baptist preparatory school for children
Norman College was founded by Mell Baptist Association in the early 1900s following an 1897 discussion about establishing a Baptist preparatory school. Mt. Zion Baptist Church, located a mile east of the present site, offered $4,000 and the original 16 acres of land to secure the school.
The educational facility was opened in 1901 as Norman Institute for grades one through 12. It later transitioned as a college but, by the 1960s, began to encounter a steady decline in enrollment. At the end of the 1970-71 academic year the trustees voted to close the school and gift the assets to the Georgia Baptist Convention (now Georgia Baptist Mission Board).
In its new incarnation it complemented the state’s other conference center in the north Georgia town of Toccoa, which remains financially sound.
Norman Park Conference Center received extensive publicity in September 2005 when it housed 260 Hurricane Katrina refugees in an evacuation that was known as the nation’s largest mass migration since the Civil War. Georgia Baptists responded with emergency offerings and gifts of shoes, clothing, and related items.
Temporary home for Hurricane Katrina refugees
One of the state health department officials told The Index at the time that one of the bus drivers bringing the refugees to Georgia had spent the entire eight-hour trip affirming the people and giving them hope as they fled New Orleans.
The official related that the driver told the refugees, who were not sure where they were going, “I’m taking you to paradise because you’ve already been to hell.” Within hours the bus rolled into Norman Park.
Located on Highway 319 less than 15 miles from I-75 at Tifton in south Georgia, Norman Park can accommodate up to 750 individuals overnight while housing larger groups for day meetings. The auditorium has a seating capacity of 700 and offers more than 34 conference rooms. The campus also has three other large meeting areas that accommodate between 100 to 250 people.
Recreational facilities include a gymnasium, swimming pool, four tennis courts, and a playing field for various recreational activities. RV campsites are plentiful and available year around.
The center has maintained a strong reputation throughout the local community and with guests statewide for its popular Southern-style buffet.