Project on Hold

Tabernacle Is Battlefront on Camp Ground

By CHRIS BURRELL

Don't let the tranquillity of the Camp Ground fool you.

When residents got wind of plans to put the Camp Ground in debt in order to finance a $1.9 million, full-scale restoration of the Tabernacle, things turned political quickly.

Opponents started writing letters and collecting signatures for a petition. An anonymous three-page letter questioning the plans and Camp Ground leadership landed in the mailboxes of all 320 households.

Last Saturday, when the 21-member board of directors of the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association convened for their quarterly meeting, it was supposed to be an unveiling of a financial roadmap - how to pay for an ambitious overhaul of the landmark Tabernacle.

Instead, the resistance effort inside this historic community paid off. Leaders decided to put the restoration on the back burner and focus on fixing just one piece of the 124-year-old structure - the cupola.

"There's some serious resistance within the Camp Meeting community," said Fred Sonnenberg, the only year-round member of the board. "We certainly are concerned about the general feeling in the Camp Ground and not wanting to risk our land ... without a payback plan that looked very viable."

Board member Douglas West - who is a vice-president with Toyota Motors based in Washington, D.C. - was the man in charge of creating a financial plan.

He could not be reached for comment, but Mr. Sonnenberg explained that Mr. West's ideas for financing offered several options, including borrowing the $1.9 million, building new cottages on undeveloped land and levying fees on new residents in the Camp Ground, where houses may be purchased but the land is held in common by the association.

The board meeting was held in closed session, but there was no denying the growing opposition.

"What you see is a lack of planning," resident and letter-writer Earle Engley told the Gazette in a telephone interview.

Clearly, much of the disgruntlement was rooted in the fact that Camp Ground leadership had miscalculated what was needed to restore the Tabernacle.

Three years ago, Camp Ground leadership mounted a fund-raising campaign for about $2 million. They raised almost $1.8 million.

The first million was meant to pay for a basic renovation - new stained-glass windows, re-flashing the roof and a paint job of the rusty iron structure. The second million was supposed to be for an endowment.

But planners ran into unexpected problems.

A new architect and engineer hired on for the job determined that the Tabernacle needed cement footings for the load-bearing iron columns at a cost of $400,000. Other funds were poured into a Steinway grand piano, a new sound system, electrical wiring upgrades, new stained glass in the upper clerestory and new sidewalls on the backstage.

Now, they have about $400,000 left in the coffers.

Last summer, leaders told Camp Ground leaseholders they had a full set of plans from a Providence architect and needed almost twice the money - $1.9 million more - to do the whole job.

One major bone of contention is the need for a new roof. The architect declared it's a necessity and would cost almost $600,000.

Alfred Jacobsen 3rd, a Camp Ground resident and a lawyer in Bedford, N.Y., wrote a letter to the board, questioning the track record of a new roof made of a new material.

Roofs with moss, he wrote, "are deemed charming." Mr. Jacobsen also criticized the borrowing idea to pay for the restoration.

"Board members who vote to do things are not personally liable," he wrote. "Who would be personally liable on the note and mortgage if the ‘faith' is wrong and the money does not come in?"

A joint letter from Ernest and Nancy Fay and Allan and Annabelle Tait cut straight to the money issues and illustrated a growing lack of confidence in the leadership that made promises they didn't keep.

"You are seeking ... a 300 per cent increase over what was the original projected cost," they wrote. "To our knowledge, nothing has been put in the endowment fund. This is not what we were told initially."

The letter writers also cautioned that any new fees levied on leaseholders to pay back a mortgage might force some residents to rent their cottages for much of the summer season and "drastically change the make-up of the Camp Meeting Association."

The board of directors has hired a Cape-based consultant to gauge the fund-raising support on the Vineyard for the Tabernacle.

But the anonymous letter sent out to leaseholders raised serious concerns about collecting donations in the face of competition from the Oak Bluffs library and possibly the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. "What will take priority with the money people?" the letter asked.

Camp Ground general manager Bill McConnell acknowledged the rising tide of criticism to the project. "There's been a lot of concern on the part of leaseholders, some of it well-founded," he said. "We're taking a few steps back and making sure leaseholders are comfortable with what decisions might be made."

The next step appears to be biting off one small part of the project and seeing if it helps to restore not just the Tabernacle but also the faith in people running the show.

"The first thing that would be done would be the cupola and the cross on top," said Mr. McConnell. "It would be a good example."

That phase calls for new flashing and louvres, a new carbon-fiber cross illuminated externally with fiber optic lights and a zinc-plated copper roof for the cupola.

No doubt, there's some anger in the Camp Ground. "You have a lot of houses that have been sold in here - not some $20,000 cottage - they're selling for $250,000 and $300,000," said Mr. Engley. "You have people who spend that kind of money, and you're not going to pull the wool over their eyes."

Mr. Engley's letter also called for some board members to be popularly elected, instead of only being nominated from within the board itself. "This isn't a democracy," he added. "This is despotic."

Mr. Sonnenberg tried to bring the discussion back to the basics. "The main issue is we want the building to be there another hundred years," he said. "We can't ignore [problems], which is what's been done an awful lot in the past."