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Conference center eyed for affordable housing

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By Vicky Gits

A local minister is spearheading an effort to buy the historic Evergreen Conference Center and turn it into a transitional affordable housing center for low-wage and entry-level workers who work in town but must now commute a substantial distance.The rustic conference center would continue to be open to the public as a wedding and training venue. The complex at 27618 Fireweed Drive in Evergreen next to Center/Stage Theater is home to the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, which purchased the property in 1994. It has been on the market since March for $1.2 million. There are two main buildings, a 5,687-square-foot conference center and kitchen and a 1,800-square-foot bed and breakfast, the Williams House, with six bedrooms. The second story of the conference center is divided into offices that have plumbing in the walls and could become sleeping rooms. Residents would live one or two to a dormitory-style room and share kitchens and bathrooms. Ann Bolson, pastor of Wild Rose Congregational Church, was looking for a possible home for her small congregation when she took a tour of the conference center in September and came up with a plan.“It’s much bigger than we could afford. When I got into the Williams House, that’s when it struck me. When I saw the building, I just knew,” Bolson said.There is also a counseling center on the grounds, a small cottage (Chalmers House) and two one-room cabins. The center was built on a rocky promontory in 1920 as an addition to the Episcopalian summer retreat Camp Neosha, which was established on Bear Creek in 1898.In recent years it has been an events and conference center, hosting as many as 40 weddings a year. It is situated on 3.6 acres zoned for planned development and is within walking distance of downtown Evergreen. The immediate goal is to raise the earnest money and buy some time to do a feasibility study. So far Bolson has raised about $10,000.In addition to the Wild Rose Congregation, she has brought on board nine other churches for support, including United Methodist Church of Evergreen, Church of the Hills Presbyterian and Congregation Beth Evergreen. The leaders of the four congregations are members of the board of the organizing entity, AtHome in Evergreen Inc.Bolson said she got interested in affordable housing when she heard about health care workers who couldn’t afford to live in town. As a former nurse for 15 years, Bolson sympathizes with the plight of shift workers who have to commute long hours. “They don’t get a lot of sleep,” she said. She envisions residents living one or two to a room, like a college dormitory, with a common kitchen, living area and shared bathrooms. It would be a place for people to live and save money while they find an appropriate living situation. The buildings are old, but they have been “preserved immaculately,” Bolson said. Since the buildings have been used for institutional and commercial purposes for years, Bolson thinks neighbors will have a positive reaction, or at least not a negative one. “They are are used to seeing a lot of cars up there,” she said. Living the dream“It would be like a bed and breakfast, except it’s more stable,” said the Rev. Dr. Scott Schiesswohl, a supporter and president of AtHome in Evergreen Inc. “These are people who are already working here. They just can’t afford to live here. They are supporting our lifestyles out of their wages. We just intend to help them with saving wages. Eventually an option might be Habitat for Humanity, but they have to get on board first,” he said.“It’s for kids who are struggling to live the American Dream. What in effect happens is their paycheck is spent down the hill, and the money is going out of the community,” Schiesswohl said. Rents would probably be something well under $500 a month, he said. AtHome in Evergreen won’t face the same challenges that Lost and Found Inc. did when it proposed to buy Singin River Ranch for a youth treatment center, Schiesswohl said.“It won’t change the neighborhood or add any more cars or noise. The difference is, we are only looking at places that already are commercial,” Schiesswohl said. The rustic property may be immaculately preserved, but so far it has failed to find a buyer although it has been on the market for eight months.“It could be multiple things. It could be a spa. Someone could buy it and build a lot of condos,” said Candy Porter, who has been director of the conference center for 13 years.She said numerous prospective buyers have looked at the complex, but the right match hasn’t surfaced. She hopes someone will buy the buildings and save them.“The buildings are very much a part of the history of Evergreen. How sad it would be if this were not maintained. It’s original purpose was a camp for spiritual renewal.”