A Roadmap To Success

By Phil Dodson

In May 2015, Glisson Camp & Retreat Center in Dahlonega, Ga., began serving meals in a beautiful dining hall—its first new dining facility in nearly 65 years. For most residential camps, retreat centers, and conference centers, the dining hall is the single-most important facility. Considering it is utilized by every guest every day, it’s the only facility most organizations would need to exist. For Glisson’s small-group, summer-camp model, building a sense of community through family-style dining is an absolutely essential component of its ministry.

A Need For A New Dining Hall
For years, it was apparent that the much-loved and much-used dining hall—built in 1951—had become insufficient. Originally an open-air facility built when Glisson served no more than 125 individuals a week—for only a few weeks each year—the dining hall was now hosting three meals for as many as 400 people each day. This figure is now applied throughout the year since retreat hosting has become such an integral part of the ministry.

The space limitations forced the camp to divide campers and retreat guests into two seatings for each meal, which significantly impacted both programming and staffing. One obvious impact, for example, was that Glisson found it difficult to attract large retreat groups that would be required to surrender 3 hours of their programming each day to repeat mealtimes.

Start At The Beginning
When a summer camp, retreat center, or conference center decides the time has come for a new dining facility, is there a sure-fire way to achieve such a significant endeavor? How is it determined whether to renovate what is current, demolish and re-build on the same site, or build a new facility in a new location? In 2008, the year-round Glisson staff members thought they had it all figured out, until they began to compare notes and discovered there were at least three different ideas on how to proceed. Some members thought the existing facility should be renovated, while others had at least two different locations in mind for a new facility. It quickly became clear they needed help.

For a facility as integral to the organization’s mission as a dining hall, a series of questions can help guide the early decision-making. If you decide to renovate the current dining hall, can you effectively remain in operation during the 12 or 16 months required for construction? If so, how will you feed guests during this time? Do alumni have a strong affinity for the current facility? Would you risk alienating a significant number of supporters by demolishing or dramatically changing a building that many alumni remember so fondly? The most significant question looks to the future rather than the past: What solution would best serve the organization’s mission for the next 50 or 60 years?

As year-round staff members who manage daily operations, or as board members who set policy, answering these questions in an objective way can be a challenge. Glisson has long had a reputation for making sound decisions and being a good steward of a nearly 90-year legacy of ministry, its facilities, and financial resources. The camp needed an approach that preserved this reputation. The board of directors chose to pursue a course of action that utilized external expertise in facility planning and fundraising, incorporated input from a wide range of Glisson stakeholders, and maintained the highest degree of transparency and integrity throughout.

The Master Plan
The first step was to employ the services of a master-planning firm in 2009. The objectives were clear. It was necessary not only to determine whether a new dining hall was truly needed, but to complete a more comprehensive review of the ministry’s overall facility needs for the next 50 years. A detailed third-party analysis of current facility usage, historical guest statistics, and future plans could potentially uncover needs even more urgent than the perceived need for a new dining hall.

The master-plan update process ran from 2009 to 2010. In addition to a detailed review of historical attendance and facility usage, the master-planning consultants actually spent time physically observing how summer campers, summer staff, retreat groups, and vehicles moved about the property and utilized facilities on a daily basis. Once this analysis was completed, stakeholders—camper families, retreat leaders, alumni, and former board members—were invited to attend a series of sessions to hear about the findings and provide feedback. Stakeholder comments and questions helped confirm some pre-conceived notions, while others actually challenged the group to re-think some of the assumptions at the outset of the process.

The master-planning consultants presented their findings to the board of directors in April 2010. The findings confirmed that a new dining hall was the most pressing facility need. Because the master plan peered 50 years into the future, a series of other facility and programmatic needs were also identified. Detailed rationale for each suggestion was provided, as were site-usage statistics and comments from stakeholders that underscored the priorities identified.

Feasibility Study And Capital Campaign
At this point, a feasibility study was the next logical step. Just as assistance was needed in evaluating Glisson’s facility needs through the master-planning process, a fundraising firm was consulted in 2010 to help determine whether the necessary funding for any, or all, of the master-plan recommendations could be accomplished through a capital campaign. Key stakeholders were involved just as they had been during the master-planning process. Donors, alumni, camper parents, retreat leaders, foundations, and church leaders were invited to participate in individual interviews and focus groups.

A feasibility study was concluded in 2011 with a recommendation to the board to launch a capital campaign for the dining hall—a portion of the overall master plan. Out of an estimated $15 million to $16 million in identified future facility needs, a $4.9-million campaign to build a new dining hall was begun in the spring of 2012. The fundraising consultants were retained as counsel for the capital campaign, which was completed in October 2014, and after 16 months of construction, the first meal was served in the new 20,000-square-foot dining hall.

Best Practices
From start to finish, this effort took more than 6 years to complete. Efforts to “get it done right” included some key priorities:

  • Securing professional advice for each stage of the process
  • Seeking input from a wide range of stakeholders
  • Communicating frequently to all constituents throughout the process
  • Methodically following the plan, regardless of where it led.

Now there is a beautiful, new dining hall to show for all of the effort. For the first time in decades, it is now possible for all Glisson summer campers or retreat guests to share one mealtime together. The impact on the program has been dramatic. It has essentially repurposed 3 hours of every day, and it was accomplished with buy-in from the organization’s “extended family” by following a methodical, deliberate, and transparent process of stewardship.

Phil Dodson serves as Development Director for North Georgia Camp & Retreat Ministries, which includes three sibling ministries: Glisson Camp & Retreat Center; Grow Day Camps; and the Experiential Leadership Institute. Reach him at phil@ngcrm.org.



Camp Basics

Camper-to-counselor ratio:
Village Camp (traditional)                                 6 to 1
Outpost Camp (wilderness and adventure)    5 to 1
Sparrowwood (special needs)                            2 to 1

Location: Dahlonega, Ga.
Cost to attend camp:
Village Camp (traditional)                                 $510 to $525 per week
Outpost Camp (wilderness and adventure)    $495 to $650 per week
Sparrowwood (special needs)                            $630 to $670 per week

Village Camp (traditional)                                 ages 7 to 17
Outpost Camp (wilderness and adventure)    ages 7 to 17
Sparrowwood (special needs)                            beginning at age 7, no age limit

Glisson is a ministry of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. Founded in 1925, with 90 years of continuous operation, Glisson hosts a full slate of summer-camp programs as well as retreat-group experiences during fall, winter, and spring. Summer programs include traditional and adventure camps for children and youth, as well as a traditional summer camp for children, youth, and adults with mild to moderate developmental disabilities.