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Fate of Simpsonwood Retreat Now in Methodists Hands

For the past seven years, the Retreat and Conference Center has been operating in the red to the tune of a half-million dollars annually.

The alarming news that the Simpsonwood Retreat and Conference Center, located squarely in the heart of Peachtree Corners, could potentially be sold, has some in the community decidedly nervous.

Residents in neighboring subdivisions that ring the 227-acre tract had always understood that the land would remain as has been for over 40 years, a pristine piece of property in the care of the United Methodist Church.

It was believed that Miss Ludie Simpson's gift, deeded over to the North Georgia United Methodist Church in June of 1973 guaranteed that. But a judge's ruling on August 14, 2013 has the potential to dramatically alter the long-held belief that the property will remain in its natural state.

Up until this point the church has been silent on its intentions, only saying in a statement that "the marketing of the 227-acre Simpsonwood property continues a lengthy, prayerful and research-dependent process."

Those words have brought little solace to long-time residents who felt that the church was going back on its promise to Miss Ludie. 

But Sybil Davidson, spokesperson for the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, spoke with Patch recently to explain why the the Methodist Church sought a ruling on the land and the plans for its future.

"The most important thing to know is that the property has not been sold, and may not be sold," said Davidson. "Primarily, we are researching what the options are."

As a rule the United Methodist Church operates methodically and carefully explained Davidson who added the fate of the Simpsonwood property will be handled in the same way.

"The church considers Simpsonwood a ministry, it's one of many that the church has and it wants to do the best for our ministries," she explained. 

It's no secret that the Simpsonwood Retreat and Conference Center has suffered since the downturn in the economy. For the past seven or so years, its annual losses have been steadily mounting. In recent years the conference center has lost over $500,000 annually and expects that number to increase to $540,000 in 2014.

"That's a significant amount of money and the loss has been heavily evaluated," said Davidson. Yet it's a small part of the overall budget, making up just 2 percent of the money the North Georgia Conference budgets each year.

"The Conference has been subsidizing the operation for the the past seven years," said Davidson. "Seven years ago the North Georgia Conference started deeply looking at it (the lost operating revenue) and created a task force to study the long-range plans.

"We view (Simpsonwood) as a ministry, not a business," she added. "We put money toward all of our ministries." But there is a point of diminishing return and at some point it requires that Simpsonwood, or any of its ministries, be evaluated on whether it's the best use of the church's money.

Along with the Simpsonwood Retreat and Conference Center, the offices of the North Georgia Conference are also located on the property. A staff of about 24 operate from offices in the Conference Center.

"There is no writing on the wall about what's going to happen to Simpsonwood," said Davidson. "Plans to sell are not in place." Miss Ludie's wishes "to keep the land so all people could enjoy God's beautiful creation," would be considered she said.

"We've taken care and loved this property for 40 years and that's where we stand," said Davidson who explained that money was not the motivating factor when it went to court earlier this year.

The North Georgia Conference sought to have "clarity that we own the property free of legal restrictions," said Davidson. "This is a long, thoughtful process. I hope there is some comfort in that - there are a lot of people deciding on this."

Editor's note: The church's North Georgia Conference is made up of 1,800 members, half clergy, half lay people, and operates through a 12-member board of trustees, though the board is not a decision-making body. There are a total of 59 conferences throughout the U.S. Georgia is divided into two conferences, a North and South Conference.

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