By John W. Coleman
Eastern PA Conference members heard a resolution presented Oct. 5 that would authorize the conference to sell up to 50+/- acres of land at Innabah Camp & Retreat Center to pay off budget deficits and Innabah’s large payroll liability. The deficits at the conference’s three residential camps, have mounted in the wake of financial losses caused by closures of summer camps and scheduled retreats during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rev. Don Keller, Camp & Retreat Ministries Board Chairman, presented the resolution to a preliminary conference session that took place in a Zoom webinar format. The session was held primarily so that members could practice use of the new e-Ballot secure online voting system. He also responded to questions about the proposal.
The resolution will be voted on along with others at the Annual Conference Oct. 13, but no debates or amendments will be allowed. That temporary rule change was approved at a called conference session August 26.
“The pandemic has severely curtailed (our) operations and brought our operating income nearly to a halt,” Keller reported. Despite severe spending cuts and staff furloughs, and while conference agencies, churches and individual donors have rallied to support the camp ministry, he said, “we are still facing drastic shortfalls for budget years 2020 and 2021.”
Innabah is one of four camp and retreat centers owned by the conference and spread out among its four districts. Three—Innabah, Pocono Plateau and Gretna Glen are residential camp sites. Carson Simpson Farm is primarily a camp for daytime use.
The Camp & Retreat Ministries Board and site directors have worked closely with the Conference’s Board of Trustees, Council on Finance and Administration, Human Resources Committee and Bishop Peggy Johnson to deliberate over the budget shortfalls and enact solutions.
Land sale is a ‘last resort’ but will not interfere with camp programs
“The sale of property is not an option we entertain lightly, but rather is a last resort” Keller explained. “The request of up to 50 acres is intended to give the Camping Board and the Trustees the option to sell less if that will meet the needs.” But, he added, the identified acreage has been “carefully selected from the 179 acres that currently make up Camp Innabah, so as to not change or interfere with camp programming.”
While the current total shortfall is approximately $40,000, Innabah has a payroll debt of $395,000 that has accumulated over the past decade. Lost revenue from the cancellation of spring retreats and summer camps prevented payment on those debts this year. Moreover, the camps anticipate a “significant deficit for the first six months of 2021,” Keller said, due to the ongoing pandemic.
The board chairman answered several posed questions regarding the land selected, possible alternatives to its sale and the conference’s need for four camps. He also agreed to a request to publish on the conference website a map of the camp, with the areas considered for sale clearly marked.
Bishop Johnson reminded members that there will be no debate or amendments offered at the Annual Conference business session on Oct. 13. “But we do want to receive and respond to all questions members may have,” she said. “There’s just no way to do a complicated Parliamentary procedure with this kind of (webinar) meeting format. And voting this way (via e-Ballot) was something overwhelmingly supported by our vote in late August.
Here is a summary of Keller’s answers to the questions raised:
- The sale would be for residential use, for which township zoning laws require sale in 10-acre parcels. The sale price, as appraised in property value by a realtor, would be about $25,000 an acre.
- “We will sell only what we need to address the (financial) crisis. And we are considering creative options, like selling to a conservation trust, which would have virtually no impact on the property and our use of it.”
- Regarding the property considered for sale: 20 acres are behind French Creek and are not presently used at all; 20 acres are behind the camp director’s home and are used only for some wilderness trail hiking; and 10 acres are on the Pughtown Road street front that leads into the daytime use area. The hiking trail and daytime use area can be easily relocated.
- The two reasons only Innabah is being considered for property sale is because it has the large accumulated payroll debt that needs to be paid off and because discussions about property sale there have already been happening for several years and “it is a discussion that doesn’t happen easily or quickly; it takes time. So we already have a lot of the ground work laid.”
- “We could get by with fewer than four camps. Other conferences do. But if I were to lay out a grand plan for the best way to serve our conference, it would be with three residential camp sites and one day-use site; and that is what we have.”
- If someone were to offer a donation of sufficient funds to avoid the sale of land, “I would have to consult with the Conference Trustees. If such an offer were made, it’s something we could talk about.”
- “If a prospective buyer wants to set up a camp meeting to avoid sale of the property and it was approved by the township council that is certainly something that could be on the table (for consideration). But for us to switch to (operating) a camp meeting site on those properties is not something we’re prepared to do.”
- “We are not at the stage where we even have prospective buyers, yet. Some of it is prime real estate; so I don’t think we will have a problem getting a buyer. This resolution only gives us permission to move forward.”