By WVPA staff reporter
This is an in-depth look at the Nonprofit Youth Organization Tax Exemption Amendment that voters will see on the ballot this November provided by the West Virginia Press Association. The amendment will allow the Boy Scouts to lease the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Fayette County out for commercial business. This has been a controversial topic, as some locals fear that it will cause unfair competition for local business. However, the Boy Scouts, backed by Senator Manchin and Governor Tomblin, assert that the amendment would open the doors to more tourism and give West Virginia international exposure. —Don Smith, Executive Director WVPA
The Boy Scouts of America has a vision for the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Fayette County, and it doesn’t necessarily involve Boy Scouts. Rather, the BSA hopes that the Summit – the 10,600-acre property situated adjacent to the New River Gorge National River – will one day play host to world-class extreme sports events, large-scale concerts and more.
The Boy Scouts believes that the events could potentially bring the state international exposure, increased tourism and put West Virginia on the map of destination sporting events.
The only hitch? The state first needs to amend its constitution in order for the BSA’s vision to be realized.
Come Election Day, voters heading to the polls will have the choice to support the “Nonprofit Youth Organization Tax Exemption Support Amendment.”
In summary, the amendment would allow the BSA to lease the Summit property out as part of for-profit ventures without jeopardizing its current property tax exemption. The amendment holds that for a “nonprofit youth organization” to qualify for the state property tax exemption, the facility must have been built at a cost of at least $100 million. The Summit is currently the only facility in the state that meets those criteria.
According to Gary Hartley, director of community and governmental relations for the BSA, the Scouts realized early into the planning process that the Summit property would be unique from their other scouting sites. The BSA worked closely with an interdisciplinary team – comprised of West Virginia representatives and assembled by former Governor Joe Manchin – to envision the property’s potential, and it was from that partnership the concept stemmed to use the facility as a venue for large events, Hartley said.
However, the BSA soon discovered that the state constitution, along with a 1944 West Virginia Supreme Court ruling, threw a kink in those plans.
While the nonprofit BSA is currently exempt from property taxes, Hartley said that hosting large-scale for-profit events could jeopardize the BSA’s current property tax exemption under state law. Representatives of the BSA met with the governor, state tax officials and both the Senate and the House when assessing the correct route to take to achieve their end goal, and Hartley said that a state amendment was the solution gathered from those conversations.
“This amendment will allow us to maintain that property tax exemption if we were to lease out the property for commercial purpose,” he said.
In addition to being the new permanent Jamboree site, the Summit is also home to the Paul R. Christen National High-Adventure Base, which opened in June 2014. Hartley said the high-adventure base is poised to attract up to 40,000 Scouts each summer, while the Jamboree, held every four years, gathers roughly 45,000 attendees.
In the off season, the Summit – boasting a large open-air stadium and roughly a dozen nationally ranked, world-class venues for outdoor sporting activities, including skateboarding, BMX, shooting sports and rock climbing – sits empty.
“Those venues have the potential to be utilized for more than our Scouting and youth programs,” said Hartley said.
The Summit is a fitting venue for premiere extreme sporting events, Hartley said, adding that “people involved with those types of games” have contacted the BSA and expressed interest in utilizing the facility.
“There’s nowhere that you’ve got world-class BMX right next to a skate park, with a stadium that will seat 80,000 people, with rock climbing and shooting sports, and whitewater in the area,” said Hartley. “This really makes it a very unique facility.”
Critics of the amendment fear that allowing the Summit to host for-profit events without the monetary burden of property tax could create an unfair business climate for local businesses, most specifically ACE Adventure Resort and Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG).
For that reason, Delegates Margaret Staggers and David Perry, D-Fayette, amended the resolution in the House to add “enabling legislation,” which holds that the amendment would only become effective once the Legislature develops rules and regulations to protect local and regional businesses.
“This `enabling legislation’ should be driven by feedback from the general public and not the Boy Scouts,” said Perry, adding that he thinks a joint-select committee should be appointed to gather public testimony. “At this point I feel confident that if a select committee monitors the situation properly then it will be a definite safeguard against what could happen,” said Perry.
It would be the Legislature’s responsibility to oversee the situation each year, and it would likely be an ongoing process to tweak the laws to best protect local business, Perry said. He said he fears what it will do to the potential tax revenue of the county until that legislation is spelled out.
The protective laws have not been drafted yet, Hartley explained, but said that the BSA has submitted some suggested guidelines, such as the minimum size of the events, percent of the year that the property could be used and types of events that could be hosted.
“This amendment is about bringing new business to southern West Virginia,” said Hartley. “We’re not looking to compete with existing events that are already occurring in the area; we want to bring new and larger events and activities to West Virginia.”
Dave Arnold, co-owner of AOTG, has stepped up to voice his support of the amendment.
“We are for the amendment,” said Arnold. “We think that the Legislature put a good counterweight on it, and we think that will protect us from anything that’s really anti-competitive.”
Arnold said that the BSA has shown a “great partnership” will AOTG thus far, and thinks that allowing large commercial events at the Summit could have exciting results for the state.
“We look at the Boy Scouts as a big cornfield,” said Arnold. “They’re planting the seeds for future people that are going to come to West Virginia and go down the river.”
Not all locals share that opinion, however.