Henderson County News: County revokes Kanuga Conference Center tax exemption

County revokes Kanuga conference center tax exemption

Kanuga Conference Center attorney Brian Gulden questions Kanuga Comptroller Miriam Walsh as attorney Anderson Ellis watches.

The Kanuga Conference Center is fighting the Henderson County collector’s decision to revoke its tax-exempt status, a move that could cost the center more than $ 1 million if continued.

After an investigation into the promotion, marketing and rental of its rooms, booths and event spaces by the church-affiliated center, tax collector Darlene Burgess decided that Kanuga was no longer entitled to a tax exemption as as a non-profit religious organization. Unless it wins an appeal to overturn Burgess’s decision, the episcopal center owes $ 1,063,175.09 in back taxes, current taxes, and penalties dating back to 2016.
The Henderson County Equalization and Review Board heard Kanuga’s appeal against the county’s decision in a day-long hearing on Monday before adjourning with the intention of resuming the case in early January. Kanuga’s attorneys Brian Gulden and Anderson Ellis of the Van Winkle law firm and Burgess and county attorney Emily Meeker of Raleigh agreed that Kanuga would release information on 286 groups that had rented rooms and facilities. facilities at the conference center and camp. and that Kanuga would list his personal business assets for tax purposes for the past five years.
Founded in 1928 when Bishop Kirkman Finlay purchased the bankrupt Kanuga Lake Club from a developer in Charlotte, Kanuga has served as a retreat, camp, and conference center for parishes and church-affiliated groups in the States- United, the Caribbean and several European countries. Kanuga CEO, Reverend Michael Sullivan, told the E&R when interviewed by Gulden.
Youth camps focus on teaching the word of God and the confirmation and baptism of participants. Each room or cabin displays a cross and has no television. Sullivan testified that those who stay at the center sign the Guest Pact, which obliges them to adhere to Kanuga’s mission of “connecting with each other, nature and the Creator” and its core values, which are calls to service based on Christianity. , respect, sustainability and stewardship.
“You can’t just show up and say I want to have a wedding,” Sullivan said. “We respect all the canons for everything we do in relation to our faith which is sacramental. … A group in 2019 didn’t want to adhere to our core values, so we turned them down and told them no. We share our core values ​​and guest commitments with everyone. … We engage without apologies in the evangelization of the world for the Gospel.

“For-profit commercial events”

The tax collector’s revocation of Kanuga’s property tax exemption was based on its web marketing and promotions to the general public and its rental of facilities for non-religious purposes.
“Between 2016 and 2021, there were a lot of events that took place at the Kanuga conferences that are inconsistent with the legal provisions” allowing tax exemption for religious organizations, Burgess said, recounting a slide presentation to the board of directors of ‘E&R. “Kanuga uses the property to organize for-profit business events open to the general public and inconsistent with the religious mission for which the exemption was granted. ”
Examples, she said, included non-religious conferences and meetings, “weekend getaways” and large-scale recreational events. On its website, Kanuga promotes its accommodation for up to 440 people, the renovated 61-room Kanuga Lake Inn, 39 historic cabins and six guesthouses, as well as meeting space, three dining rooms, indoor and outdoor chapels and numerous recreational facilities including the lake, rock climbing wall, tennis, shuffleboard and pickleball courts and miles of hiking trails. Examples of non-religious events the county cited included Carolina Ophthalmology, Wofford College, First Citizens Bank, a Pardee leadership retreat, a Cornell University national labor leadership meeting, the filming from the remake of “Dirty Dancing” and others.

Ride Kanuga brings guests

The county tax office and Kanuga also disagree over events affiliated with the new Ride Kanuga mountain bike park, which draws riders of all ages for regular races and events. The conference center leased 225 acres to Ride Kanuga effective June 1, 2020. This represents 17% of the 1,122 acres of the main plot. Although the 225-acre bike park is not exempt and currently taxed, the county argued that Kanuga benefited from the park for profit because bikers pay for accommodation at Kanuga Lake Inn, cabins, and Camp dorms. Kanuga and Camp Bob. The county cited a report Sullivan made to the Diocese of South Carolina that touted the “Kanuga bike park partnership” which “brings cyclists to Kanuga to enjoy our property and overnight accommodations.” Ride Kanuga, he said, “has resulted in a significant increase in our accommodation bookings and exposed Kanuga to a whole new demographic.”
Asked by Gulden, Reverend Sullivan said the non-religious organization also took advantage of the spiritual nature of the land to meditate and walk in the woods.
“Don’t believe it, the bankers pray too and I prayed with the first citizens,” he said.
Sullivan said he was dismayed to learn the county had revoked the center’s tax-exempt status.
“I found it confusing to be honest because I don’t think we’re sort of like a regular hotel,” he said. “People come to Kanuga for what it is: a camp and conference center associated with the Episcopal Church. … Most people who book a room at the Holiday Inn don’t want a lot of priests around, or loudspeaker prayers or a cross in every room without a TV. Kanuga’s Christian nature, he said, would be clear to anyone booking a room. “You couldn’t make this reservation without seeing all of these things,” he said. “There is no capacity to do it. ”
Kanuga’s Comptroller, Mirian Walsh, testified that the amounts received by the center were negligible or insignificant compared to its overall revenues and that for some of them – Flat Rock Playhouse, Camplify and Pardee Hospital, for example – Kanuga has offered its facilities at a very low cost as a service to the community.
The county investigation found that Kanuga Conferences Inc. and its affiliates collected total revenues of $ 8.9 million in 2018, up from $ 9.6 million in 2017. The Collector’s Office also compared marketing from Kanuga to the offerings of the Ridgecrest Conference Center, Bonclarken, Camp Tekoa and Mount. Shepherd Center in Randolph County. He said he found that only Kanuga offered his property for non-religious or non-educational purposes, rented out to the public and held “for-profit business events open to the public.” Another spreadsheet was intended to show that Kanuga operated more like Highland Lake Inn and Resort, Horse Shoe Farm, or High Hampton Resort, all owned by private companies that pay taxes.
“By engaging in commercial activities, Kanuga has placed itself in direct competition with similar for-profit properties,” said Burgess. “Kanuga has an advantage over these other properties because it doesn’t pay property tax. This creates inequalities in our tax system.

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