An interview with local residents Wolf and Tracie Kutter: From service to the nation to service to the community
How did you and Tracie find Lake Lure?
Tracie and I had been looking for some time since 2005 at either lake or mountain properties that were within a three hour range of Charleston SC, where our principal residence is. We looked at numerous places around Lake Norman and had found a nice, semi-secluded condo facing the water near Davidson College. Just as we were having our children and the grand children come take a look at that condo, Tracie found attractive homes and condos in the Lake Lure area on the web. We subsequently had several visits to Lake Lure and fell in love with the area – the lake, the Hickory Nut Gorge and the incredible views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Vista at Bill’s Mountain Community. When our granddaughter Nicole found “lucky” lady bugs in the townhome we toured on Red Hawk Knoll and at the Vista at Bill’s Mountain Club House – it sealed the deal. For both Tracie and I, seeing the Blue Ridge mountains every day from this scenic “vacation” townhome/condo brought back wonderful memories of when we had lived in Lexington, VA. I was there teaching ROTC at Washington and Lee University for three years and we saw every day the Allegheny Mountains on one side of the Shenandoah valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the other.
What prompted you to get involved with the Lake Lure Classical Academy and the Vista at Bill’s Mountain Community?
Starting in 2013, Tracie and I were spending more and more timein our home on Red Hawk Knoll. I was cutting back on strategic consulting, board work, and turn around management on national security issues in the Washington, DC area. With access to DSL, I had less need to get on an airplane. Tracie and I had always been involved in community efforts, starting with the Rockbridge County Relief Association back in Lexington, VA and of course Red Cross, Army Community Services and Family Support Groups that supported our commands’ soldiers and their families while deployed across the globe. Our trips around this area showed the results of closed factories and businesses due to the decline of manufacturing and the movement of these factories to the Far East as well as poverty existing just outside the ring of lakeside homes.Through entertaining and socializing in the Vista at Bills’ Mountain Community, and the Newcomers Club we learned about some of the needs of the larger Lake Lure area, and the foundations that supported those needs such as the Hickory Nut Outreach, The Hickory Nut George Foundation and the Lake Lure Community Education Foundation. We also noted the ongoing charter school efforts in recruiting students, teachers, and moving to a new campus on Island Creek Road. Within Vista at Bill’s Mountain, Tracie suggested that we take advantage of the beautiful Club House and host quarterly community social get together. By getting the other 30 couples involved socially also entailed reaching out, making them aware of the needs of the community, and suggesting areas they might want to volunteer to help. Their response has been overwhelming!
What prompted you to serve on the LLCA School Board and chair two of its committees – Finance and Marketing-Communications?
In February 2016 I was asked to attend the monthly Lake Lure Classical Academy Board Meeting. This was the board meeting that announced the national search for an Executive Director and the results of a no holds barred teacher survey. During this time frame, LLCA had some teachers and students leaving, and needed new approaches for improvement. After that board meeting and discussions with Tracie, she suggested that I help in light of the insights I had gained while working with Palmetto Scholars Academy, a North Charleston, SC charter school. A few weeks later, after digesting a lot of information, I wrote a detailed turn around action plan for LLCA that provided a framework for the new Executive Director, Mr Tom Keever, who started in May. The following month, at the urgings of Russ Pitts and Lynn Carnes, and LLCA Board approval, I officially assumed the duties of the LLCA Board’s Finance Chair, and the Board’s Marketing-Communications Committee, along with the Co-Chair Lynn Carnes. Tim Turner became the Board Chairman at the same time, taking over from Chris Braund. After seeing additional enrollment drops in June and July I briefed a detailed analysis of what had to get done in School Year 2016 -2017 to get LLCA back on track. The key focus areas were quality academics, academic options with Isothermal Community College, enrollment marketing, and restructuring of the crushing debt associated with the $9 Million bond for the new school building.
How were you able to pull off a $12 million dollar package to refinance LLCA’s debt and build the Gymnatorium – with less annual outlays?
The short answer is – it was a real team effort and adherence to tight timelines to secure Federal 2017 funds. After reviewing the School Year 2016-2017 budget the Finance Committee members and I realized that we had to refinance the $9 million bond that had an official rate of 6 7/8 per cent, but actually – with one year’s worth of debt payments frozen in an escrow account, the rate was more like 9 per cent, and we were operating in the red due to the student losses in the summer of 2016. We reached out to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development (RD) Team to come in and share with us the requirements to secure a USDA loan. Their going rate then was 3%. We learned that we could refinance the $9 million debt, and concurrently finance the $ 3 million required for the new Gymnatorium, all at an annual saving of $150,000 of debt service. However, we had to fill out mountains of technical paperwork.
It truly was a gargantuan team effort – some 80 plus people and 38 organizations were ultimately involved. A special thanks goes to Todd Morse who undertook the initial 120 plus pages Feasibility Study, Russ Pitts who shepherded the engineering and environmental requirements, Tim Turner who worked the legal and Indian Tribes issues, Bob Keith and the Town of Lake Lure for approving construction plans and an unencumbered Certificate of Occupancy, and Parker Stitzer of Hamlin Capital in New York City who supported the refinancing without penalties. In June of 2017 we submitted the paperwork. After three tries and extensive support from the NC State’s congressional team, we got approved at the USDA national level in August of 2017 for the $12 million package financed for 40 years. I should also hasten to add that were it not for Tom Keever’s Executive Director acumen in running the school and communicating so effectively with parents, teachers, and students – this immense effort would not have succeeded. We had to convince USDA that we had a winning team that produced academic results, and increased student enrollments. This we did!
Given the USDA RD loan package rationale – what roles do you foresee for the “Gymnatorium”?
When we wrote the Feasibility Study we highlighted how this Community Gymnasium-Auditorium would support the LLCA K-12 student experiences not only from an athletic perspective, but also permit the introduction of art, plays and music to the entire extended school family. Having the gymnatorium would permit year around sports programs and draw at least an additional 30 students to LLCA. If those numbers held, then the simple payback calculation for the $3 million Gymnatorium was 12 years. We also underscored that the Gymnatorium could support critical community requirements. For example it could serve as a disaster shelter or Emergency Operations and Support Center – such as the one that was run out of tents during the Party Rock Fire. Finally we pointed to the need for a facility that could host community events – like Arts and Crafts festivals during inclement weather, in-door sports tournaments (Basketball, Pickle Ball), and special music and theater events open to the entire population within a 15 miles radius around our Lake Lure Classical Academy community school.
Given the various partnerships that LLCA has forged, for example – with Isothermal Community College, Chimney Rock State Park, and the local Broadband, Conservancy, Equestrian, Software Development, and Agribusiness initiatives – LLCA and its Gymnatorium represents a drawing card for young professionals with families. They want a wholesome educational experience, in a rewarding scenic setting. Additionally the LLCA restructured academic programs and partnership with Isothermal Community College present opportunities for social-economic mobility, advanced education, adult learning, and community enrichment in various focus areas. And, as one sage has pointed out – a community without a school is a community without a soul. Not only does LLCA have a soul, but its partnerships within the larger community – be they firefighters, police, Hickory Nut Outreach, the churches and festivals such as the Olympiad – frame it as not just a $4 million plus annual education enterprise, but a community centerpiece that has adopted this area’s lasting values and is a well spring for economic growth.
What have you learned from this community team work experience?
There is an enormous reservoir of talent and community service support across the entire Lake Lure area – starting with the professionally rich talent in our own community – Vista at Bill’s Mountain. Talent across the area simply needs to be asked to help. It is amazing what can get done in support of our local community service providers, the Lion’s Club, HNG Chamber of Commerce, Chimney Rock State Park and of course our community school – the Lake Lure Classical Academy. So as we celebrate the opening of the LLCA Gymnatorium in May of 2019 we should also cheer the marvelous community team work efforts that brought us to this point.
What do you and Tracie enjoy doing when you have some free time?
Answer: Tracie and I enjoy celebrating the special events in the lives of our grandchildren – Nicole, Michael, Ashley, Catherine, community service, traveling abroad and exploring the waterfalls and byways of rural Western North Carolina.
Thank you both for serving our nation for 30 years and for your notable ongoing efforts to make this beautiful community a better place to live, to work and to enjoy.
Note: Wolf is a Vietnam combat veteran and holds an MBA in Corporate Finance. Subsequent to the military service, Wolf was a corporate officer for 25 years supporting US National Security.