WARNER ROBINS — A review of audits from the last 20 years show the Georgia Baptist Conference Center in Toccoa operating at a loss over that time and left no choice but to place it for sale, say Georgia Baptist leaders.
Georgia Baptist Chief Operations Officer David Melber delivered the news to Executive Committee members during their meeting Sept. 15 at Central Baptist Church in Warner Robins.
“Toccoa has had a very challenging year,” Melber stated. “We’re projecting it’s going to lose about $1.1 million this year. When they lose money, we have to make up that [loss]. We have to hand over funds for them to pay their bills.
“Because of [a lack of] attendance, we will be suspending operations this fall. September is relatively busy month but after that … no one is booking for October, November, and December. We’ll manage our losses there as best we can.”
Georgia Baptists to continue to support student camps
The audits revealed that from 2000-19, the conference center reported an average annual net loss of $543,000, or $10.86 million, during that span. Buildings that are 55 years old on average require $12.5 million in deferred maintenance. It’s been nearly 80 years since Christian businessman R.G. LeTourneau created the Lake Louise Dam, a span of time that contributed heavily to the $8.31 million repair estimate after an inspection earlier this year.
Georgia Baptist Executive Director W. Thomas Hammond, Jr., was quick to say that selling the conference center in no way signaled a lack of support for student ministries.
“We are not getting out of the camp business,” Hammond asserted. “It’s been a tool God has used to reach many young people for a long time.”
Hammond went on to point out the success of camps held in various locations. SuperWow draws its biggest crowds in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., for instance. Recent talks have opened up the possibilities of student camps held at Truett McConnel University, Shorter University, or Brewton-Parker College as well as Camp Pinnacle near Clayton and Camp Kaleo in Monroe County.
COVID-19 delivered a vicious blow to the camping and hospitality industry, and Southern Baptists were not immune. In April LifeWay announced its sale of Ridgecrest Conference Center. The California Southern Baptist Convention placed its camp up for sale the next month and received a buyer in June. In December the South Carolina Baptist Convention announced a prospective buyer for its state camp had backed out, and the center was back on the market.
Toccoa felt the pain of a pandemic lockdown as well, as shown in the projected loss of $1.1 million this year. And, noted Melber, that figure reflects a conference center where at the moment only 30 percent of its guests are Georgia Baptists.
“Having a facility demands a financial investment. And right now we’re just not in a position where we have the resources to do it,” Hammond said.
A recommendation was made and passed by Executive Committee members for operations at Toccoa to be suspended as of Sept. 30, with a staff reduction to match attendance trends. EC members also unanimously voted for further discussions to be held with an interested buyer.
Beginnings as Hotel Lake Louise
In the 1940a the aforementioned LeTourneau purchased the land for the conference center and proceeded to use his own earth-moving equipment to build an earthen dam and create Lake Louise, named after his only daughter. Hotel Lake Louise – the original name for the conference center – would be known as “a Christian hotel for Christian people” and include an operational farm that provided guests with milk, cream, cheese, eggs, chicken, and other goods.
The hotel and grounds would eventually be sold to the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1963 for $235,000, with LeTourneau contributing $10,000 to the purchase price. Renovations and additions over the next 35 years led to the conference center familiar to Georgia Baptists today.