Things money can’t buy

Pi Beta Phi-Arrowmont impasse should be about more than dollars
Jan. 07, 2013 @ 12:01 AM

There is a basic understanding in this country that someone should be able to sell their property for whatever someone else is willing to pay for it. It’s free enterprise, free will and capitalism all wrapped up into one tidy ball of realism.

Of course, sometimes there are special circumstances that cloud the issue. That’s the case over in Gatlinburg where a downtown institution is batting to be able to stay where it is, while the owner of the property on which it sits attempts to sell the land for as much as it can — and more than the institution can afford.

Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts has rented its land in the heart of Gatlinburg from Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women for $1 a year, a rate in existence for more than half a century. The nonprofit school evolved out of the original mission of Pi Beta Phi. PBP’s mission and focus have changed over the years, and it seems apparent that Arrowmont is no longer a principal cause for the fraternity.

Things change. Priorities change. It’s hard to fault PBP for that. However, Arrowmont has had a special relationship both to Pi Beta Phi and to the community. It’s a connection decades in the making, one cemented on trust and mutual objectives.

The board of Arrowmont entertained proposals to relocate three years ago after Pi Beta Phi was on the verge of selling the property for commercial development. That deal fell through, but the possibility of the sale strained forever the relationship between the school and the fraternity.

Arrowmont has the financial backing to buy the land, but not at the price PBP seeks. Arrowmont wants to buy the property for the value determined in an appraisal it paid for. Pi Beta Phi says it has an offer for much more than that appraised value. And thus two nonprofit organizations, with very different ideas these days on their roles in society and what downtown Gatlinburg land is worth, are at an apparent impasse.

The only hope for resolving this appears to be for Pi Beta Phi to come off its offer and make it more acceptable to Arrowmont. To do that would mean the fraternity would give up perhaps millions in revenue — neither side will publicly reveal offers — for the sake of a school it seems to have little interest in perpetuating. But Pi Beta Phi also has an investment, both financial and cultural, in Gatlinburg. Its early members came to the area 100 years ago to start a settlement school and teach mountain children how to read and write. Its members lived among the people of this region, teaching more modern ways and instructing them in crafts for which they could earn a better living.

No matter the current philosophy of the Pi Beta Phi Board of Governors, these well-intentioned fraternity leaders simply cannot ignore or disregard the connection of the fraternity and Arrowmont to this area. That should count for something that money cannot buy.

If Pi Beta Phi is interested only in how much it can make from selling the land, then Arrowmont probably doesn’t stand much of a chance of competing against a determined commercial developer. Raising millions to buy the property will be a challenge in itself for Arrowmont, but if it has to raise untold millions above its own internal budget, then chances are it won’t succeed.

That means its future in downtown Gatlinburg may lie within the hearts and consciences of the Pi Beta Phi Board of Governors, which will make this decision.