Stan Voit: Arrowmont is an institution worth saving

Aug. 04, 2013 @ 11:49 AM

Three years ago some local officials, in an effort to assure the board of Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts that the community was serious about keeping the school in Gatlinburg, signed a Memorandum of Understanding that spelled out what Arrowmont and community leaders were prepared to do to make it happen.

The so-called Gatlinburg Support Group outlined the inducements to Arrowmont to keep the school operating in Gatlinburg and not bolting for Greeneville. Among those written promises: Negotiate and "exercise their best efforts" to buy the 14 acres on which Arrowmont sits; enter into a long-time lease, for $1 a year, with Arrowmont if the land were purchased; use their best efforts to raise $250,000 a year in grants and gifts from the private sector to supplement the school's annual budget; and try to raise at least $5 million in a capital campaign to improve facilities.

That memo of understanding was signed by City Commissioner Jerry Hays; Gatlinburg Chamber President Logan Coykendall; developer Jim Ogle; Director of Schools Jack Parton; County Mayor Larry Waters; Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson; and Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle, among others.

This was the agreement that convinced the Arrowmont board to keep Gatlinburg as its home. Since that 2010 agreement was signed, the locals got outbid for the land by a Florida developer. But the story is not over. That setback doesn't have to mean the school is a goner.

However, it is late in the fourth quarter and Arrowmont is behind. Now we're going to see if that 2010 document has value.

Florida developer Bob Bentz is about to exercise his option to buy the property from the fraternity. While he has said he wants to try to accommodate Arrowmont on the site, there is no guarantee his final plan will do that, or whether Arrowmont will be satisfied with the proposal. Even if it is, the school will have to raise the money to pay for its portion of the land.

Look, let's be honest about this. Pragmatically, Arrowmont offers little financial value to the city or the county. It's a nonprofit. Those who travel here for classes usually stay on the campus and rarely venture out into town to spend money. In this commercial, profit-driven tourist area, supporting an institution like Arrowmont with tax dollars in a public-private partnership seems to run counter to the aims of the business community.

All that is true, if you measure Sevier County only by how much money the property owners and business people can make and how many tourists visit. We can pave over all greenery and put up rides, attractions, amusements and the like to draw more people. We can ignore the very thing that created our tourist industry in the first place: the Pi Beta Phi settlement school, the mountains, arts and crafts, the national park. We are home to 90,000 residents, and they have some expectation this will be a well-rounded, diverse community with more to offer than just what's on the Parkway.

If all we want to do with our good fortune is invest in more profit-driven businesses, we ignore the intrinsic value of a place like Arrowmont and its role in the history of Sevier County. We do that at our peril, because if all we as a community care about is making money, then we will lose our heart and soul.

There is a drive under way by people who love Arrowmont to see that doesn't happen. Phone calls and emails are directed to the people who signed that 2010 agreement and others in authority to show support for Arrowmont and to prove that there are people in this community who see nothing wrong with spending tax dollars on something that may not make any money for individuals.

Arrowmont has co-existed with tourism for decades. It has been here in some form for 100 years. Its importance to the county cannot be challenged. We simply have to stand for something more than rides, go-karts and miniature golf. Not everything has to be asphalt and signage.

On Monday a mediation session will be held involving representatives of Arrowmont, the city, the county, the school system and the developer, in an effort to reach some accord and figure out what can be done to marry the school with the development. It may answer questions. But not all questions. Because Arrowmont will not survive without an infusion of public and private money.

Not to do that would be most unfortunate, an admission that we do not value history and culture, only profit and business. Some will insist no tax money should be used to preserve Arrowmont. That's a valid argument. But when I read that 2010 memorandum I realize that Arrowmont chose Gatlinburg largely because of that agreement, and those who signed it put their name and promise behind making every effort to preserve the school.

There is something just as important as making money: Honoring a commitment and doing what you say you'll do. The character of a community is only as good as the character of those who control it.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to Twitter: @stanvoit.