A decision by leaders of the Waterford Foundation to consider selling some of the property it owns in the historic village is not being received well by residents.
During a Dec. 1 community forum in the Old School auditorium, many of the approximately 80 attendees were critical of foundation leaders on several issues, but most focused their anger on the possible sale of real estate as the nonprofit copes with a dire financial situation following the cancellation of its largest annual fundraiser, the Waterford Fair, in early October.
Several speakers defended the foundation’s right to sell property in the National Historic Landmark village—noting over the years the nonprofit has bought and resold many properties after placing them under protective easements. However, the revelation that the foundation on Nov. 20 solicited proposals from several area real estate agents concerning the possible sale of five properties touched off a firestorm.
Waterford Conservation Associates, a community group that formed to protect the 73-acre Storch property in the village, learned of the solicitation from an area real estate agent. The conservation group has purchased the property, and is in the process of placing easements limiting its future commercial use and twill then resell the property. Critics worried the foundation would sell property without sufficient protections.
Foundation President Jim Gosses said the 72-year-old foundation’s preservation and education mission was in jeopardy because of the decision to cancel the fair following predictions of hazardous weather.
“We’re bearing all the costs [of the fair] without the revenues,” he said.
The Financial Situation
Treasurer Joe Goode gave a snapshot of the foundation’s finances. The fair brings in up to 70 percent of the organization’s annual revenue. Canceling the fair meant the foundation took “a pretty big hit,” Goode said.
He noted that the foundation gets the majority of its annual revenue in the fourth quarter, after bearing significant costs during the first three quarters. Normally, it enters the new calendar year with $150,000 to $200,000 on hand to get through the first six months of the year.
But 2016 will be different.
With only $60,000 on hand and about $98,500 in mostly fair-related bills still to be paid, the foundation is working to raise $50,000 to get through the rest of this year.
“That would leave us $10,000 to go into 2016,” Goode said.
In addition, the foundation still owes $300,000 for rebuilding the Old School auditorium after a 2007 fire, as well for repairs to the John Wesley Church.
Goode is preparing a budget for 2016. “We will cut everything we can; nothing will be left off the table,” he said.
But without the prospect of significant revenue until next fall’s fair, the view is grim. “We need to identify new funding sources, including grants, do aggressive government outreach and development and identify assets for possible sale,” Goode said.
Sources of Assistance
Executive Director Tom Kuehhas and others have met with representatives from federal, state and local governments to seek help in covering some costs. Locally, Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) indicated he would work with Economic Development Director Buddy Rizer on tapping into hotel tax funds available for tourism uses.
Connie Moore, head of the foundation’s Development Committee, said everyone on the board was committed to helping to find funding.
“We hope to cover all our bases with different types of giving and to develop options for different amounts,” she said, with a total fundraising goal of $358,000. So far, $58,000 has been raised.
One bright spot was Kuehhas’ announcement that approximately $21,000 had been raised so far during the online Giving Tuesday campaign Dec. 1—a figure that later rose to $28,000.
Possible Sale of Assets
Although Land Use Committee member and foundation board director Karl Riedel repeatedly emphasized the solicitation to real estate agents had been a fact-finding mission only, it was the possible sale of land and buildings that aroused the audience.
“I want to emphasize there are no plans yet, nothing is for sale—we are in the study phase,” Riedel said.
The foundation owns 13 properties. The committee came up with seven to consider selling. Later that list was trimmed by the board of directors to five: The Schooley Mill barn and field, the John Wesley Church, Bond Street barn and meadow; the Chair Factory; and part of the North Meadow. Each are encumbered by conservation easements, except for the Bond Street Meadow.
“We’re studying what resources we have, how to go about this, which properties and what protections we need to put in place—there is no commitment, no contract,” Riedel said.
And if the fundraising goals are not met, “We have to have a Plan B,” Gosses said.
Bowman Cutter, a Waterford native who previously served on the foundation board, is a member of Waterford Conservation Associates, which is working to protect the Storch property that had been eyed for development of a wedding and entertainment center by a contract purchaser earlier this year. Cutter said he was concerned about the possibility of the foundation selling the Bond Street Barn meadow and the John Wesley Church, both near the Storch property, without adequate protection as to their use.
“We are really concerned—it could wreck this end of town,” he said.
Cutter said the conservation group obtained considerable information about easements and their limits in working with the Land Trust of Virginia over the past several months. “Easements have to be very carefully negotiated,” he said, urging the foundation to give his group assurances that it would be consulted.
“A crisis makes you think. You need to think hard what the foundation’s mission is,” Cutter said to applause. “‘Protect’ can’t be your mission—that’s done. You need a process by which to re-think the mission.”
Chris Tiscione also expressed concern that insufficient thought had gone into determining which properties should be considered for sale and the impact private ownership could have on the village. “If the church gets a public buyer, we’d have a wedding venue in our front yard,” she said.
Hilary Cooley, a past foundation president, referred to a difficult financial time during her tenure in the 1990s. Saddled at the time with a $875,000 mortgage, the foundation board turned the situation around.
“It looks like you’re putting Waterford on the market—it looks to the outside world like a fire sale,” she said. She urged the foundation board to win back the community’s trust. “You don’t have it now,” she said.
Bob Jackson questioned the merits of selling any property. He noted that many of the sites on the foundation list are needed for the fair’s activities. “You’re cutting your own throat—protection is owning.”
Another Waterford native, David Chamberlin, agreed with Cutter that the real need is to re-think the foundation’s mission. He noted the foundation started small in the early 1940s and stayed that way until it began to buy land to protect the historic landmark district, and bring in events and the fair.
“You have to protect land, however you do it,” he said.
Contact Margaret Morton at email@example.com