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Keeping their options open: Arrowmont still seeks to buy land or relocate

Arrowmont’s lease with Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women expires in August 2011, and the fraternity “is not willing to extend the lease at this time,” Arrowmont Executive Director David Willard says on the school’s Web site.

“We understand that it is still their intention to sell the land at some point in the future,” Willard says in a Web site update on the land situation. “The fraternity has title to the land and it appears that Arrowmont does not have anything other than our lease to secure our position on the property. With this in mind, we are moving forward on several fronts.”
The Mountain Press broke the story in August that persons both locally and out of Sevier County were negotiating with Pi Beta Phi to buy the property and more surrounding it. They planned a $500 million development that would include a water park, four hotels, four shopping plazas and more. They were working through David Perella, the city’s tourism director. That deal fell apart and the fraternity withdrew from negotiations to sell the land.

“Due to the economic crisis, we were not surprised the development has not proceeded as planned,” Pi Beta Phi Grand President Emily Tarr said at the time. “We continue to remain committed to the best long-term interests of the Gatlinburg community as we have for nearly 100 years. We will stay focused on developing our literacy initiatives consistent with the mission of Pi Beta Phi.” 

Willard said the Arrowmont board is “investigating the possibility of purchasing the land.”

That means the school is seeking to have the property appraised and then figure out if it can raise the millions needed to buy it. Arrowmont leases 14 acres from Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women.

“At the same time,” Willard said, “we are looking at the possibility of relocating the school. Several individuals and organizations have expressed interest in having Arrowmont in their communities. We are evaluating every location and considering the ramifications and financial commitment that will be needed to move.”

He didn’t name those communities, but it is known that Townsend is trying to attract Arrowmont.

“As you can imagine, both of these scenarios are complicated and challenging,” Willard said. “Staff, board members and community friends are working hard to gather information that will help inform our decisions. This process will continue until we have enough data to make a recommendation that we believe will ensure the future stability and success of the organization.”

Willard insists the board is not considering closing Arrowmont.

“We are committed to continuing workshops, community classes, auctions, and gallery exhibitions, as well as all of our other programs,” he said.

For those wanting to help, he urged them to take classes or encourage others to take classes.

“Make a gift to the Friends of Arrowmont Annual Fund,” he said. “We need your financial support now to stay strong as we operate through this crisis, evaluate our options, and to cover the fees and expenses of our planning. The gift you make now will make sure that we are ready to move forward when the time comes.” 

svoit@themountainpress.com

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The Mountain Press article on Gatlinburg’s new building guidelines.

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Now that Townsend’s campaign for Arrowmont’s relocation has intensified, the Gatlinburg government folks want to preserve its history in town. Nonetheless, as David Willard stated, the Pi Phis could still sell the land at any moment. While somewhat good news, it’s no time to relax. Emily Tarr still has the land sale $$ in her sites. (more…)

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The Mountain Press

In fact the shop isn’t even part of Arrowmont school. To get to the school you have to take the road to the left of the shop up the hill. Do so and walk around the campus and you’ll see what everybody is so concerned about.
(more…)

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Arrowmont owes its existence to the women’s group. Now it may owe its demise to the same group.

If anyone is in the middle of this dispute, it’s David Willard, the school’s first full-time director who must somehow defend his employer while not saying anything that might further alienate the Pi Phis.

He’s backed by his board, his students and untold numbers of Pi Phis around the country upset over a decision made by the fraternity’s seven-member grand council to entertain an offer to sell the land on which Arrowmont sits. Visit savearrowmont.org to learn the extent of the opposition. [Editorial note: this site is never updated, no helpful information, and no one can comment, not certain why this website was mentioned over http://www.savearrowmont.wordpress.com.]

“I have to be a little diplomatic here,” Willard, who came to Arrowmont in 2001 from the University of Texas, said. “We’ve got to remember that as emotional as this is and has been for me and the staff, this decision by the fraternity was a business decision that had nothing to do with us.”

And if the sale goes through, it appears Arrowmont wants to no part of the land either. Although developers who want to buy the land say they’ve made accommodations for Arrowmont, the school’s board says it doesn’t want to be surrounded by condos, restaurants, hotels and other commercial development (arrowmont.org). The Pi Beta Phi council says it will give Arrowmont up to $10 million to relocate, but that apparently won’t be nearly enough to replicate what the school already has on its 14 acres.

Willard’s fear is that all the talk about Arrowmont having an uncertain future might scare off donors and even students. The school has a $2 million annual budget, and the Pi Phis provide about 15 percent, or $300,000, of that, Willard said. Arrowmont has a lease on the property through 2011, but presumably a new land owner would renegotiate that or buy it out if it needs to.

Arrowmont’s dilemma is that it is powerless to stop the sale of the land and unlikely to get enough money from the sale to relocate with similar facilities. 

Among those championing the Arrowmont cause — and unrestrained by Willard’s desire for diplomacy — is Barbara Beville. She grew up in Gatlinburg, attended the Pi Beta Phi settlement school, served on the Arrowmont board and once owned three businesses in town. To say she’s incensed is an understatement.

“We’re just appalled,” she said. “In the first place the structure of the fraternity needs to be radically changed so seven women can’t make a decision of this magnitude. Members of the fraternity are just devastated. They’ve been so proud of Arrowmont.”

Pi Beta Phi seems to have shifted its emphasis from supporting a school of arts and crafts to backing a nationwide program to promote reading in young children. It apparently wants to divert resources from Arrowmont to that new program, Beville said. She questions whether that’s as viable a project as maintaining the Arrowmont school. 

But it’s more than just a disagreement over that.

“Where else can you find in Sevier County or the state of Tennessee a place like this?” she said. “It’s a part of me, a part of my own heritage.”

It’s also a critical part of the city of Gatlinburg’s vision. The new “Priority: Gatlinburg” study says the city should “embrace the Arrowmont School strategic plan and its cornerstone strategy of forging better connections with the community.”

Have city officials stepped forward to join the fight to save Arrowmont? Not yet, although that doesn’t mean the city is indifferent. Willard says he and the board want a dialogue to see what the city can do. 

In the meantime Willard has been getting calls and letters from other cities and governments interested in attracting Arrowmont and that “recognize what a treasure this school is,” he said. He won’t say who’s reached out, although he did say entities in East Tennessee had. 

Through all this chaos Willard has to keep trying to raise money and attract students. So far the student side is doing fine. Many have enrolled just to show support for Arrowmont, he said. The 23 full-time employees are understandably nervous.

Beville said it would be “an absolutely travesty” if Arrowmont is lost. She said the Pi Beta Phi national convention next year should be interesting, especially if no land sale has been done by then. She doesn’t think the land will change hands before that time. 

Mountain Press

By STAN VOIT

svoit@themountainpress.com

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New article in Mountain Press by Stan Voit

You have to talk to people like Gerda Carmichael, a 78-year-old resident of Birmingham, Ala. She has been a student at Arrowmont many times, often driving by herself to attend a week of classes. (more…)

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Residents of Sevier County and the counties that touch Sevier get a 50 percent cut in tuition, and since they can commute they save the housing costs. (more…)

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