Q&A on the Chimneys: Everything to know about the purpose, plans and cost of renovating this essential facility

With the recent action by the POA Board on the future of the Chimneys, numerous questions were raised at the Feb. 24 Board meeting and later on Ask the POA and in the community about the future of the Chimneys, and more specifically, around the funding of the upcoming project to renovate this POA facility.

Below are some of the key questions submitted on the subject:

Q: I heard that we don’t have the money for this project? Why wasn’t it listed in the 2022 budget information that was presented last fall?

A: Master Plan projects have not been approved during the yearly budget cycle. However, preliminary amounts are incorporated into the cash-flow analysis done by Management/Finance Committee/Board of Directors in preparation for setting the following year’s assessments. As project costs become more fully known, the analysis is regularly updated before final project approval to ensure adequate funding is available. It is not anticipated we will need to borrow money to complete this project. Project costs will be reported in the monthly financial summary similar to the Creek 9 project.

Q: If we do the Chimneys, does that mean we will not do more important projects in the community? What about items like our road maintenance or other projects planned for 2022?

A: Our current cash flow from operations provides sufficient funds to execute road, bridge, and dam maintenance and other projects planned for 2022. Proceeding with the Chimneys project in no way postpones any of our regular maintenance activities that are so vital to improving the infrastructure of our 50-year-old community.

Q: The Strategic Planning survey results said the most important project was the Postal Facility. Why is the Chimneys being done first? 

A: The rejuvenation of the Chimneys has been in the planning stage for several years.  As a result, it is so much farther along and construction can begin immediately compared to other projects. The survey indicated the community overwhelmingly wants to keep our infrastructure updated and current and to upgrade and expand our amenities. Work on this project will not defer current planning on the Postal Facility, Trash Facility or Clubhouse renovation.

The view from the Chimneys is among the best in Big Canoe.

Q: If the Chimneys is renovated, where will the additional parking come from?

A: There is plenty of good, level parking below at the Package Porch area for those who are able to use the stairs to the upper lot. Recently, the developer has released 13 more spaces near the realty office that said “realty parking only,” which provides a total of 24 parking spots in the upper lot. We are working on a Village Core Master Plan with the Long Range Planning Committee that would expand and enhance the parking area to add more parking to the Village Core. With the Village Station, the Package Porch, and the Chimneys meeting area in the same area, we need to provide more parking, or better access to existing parking, to enable the buildings to function at their full capacity.

However, redoing the parking in the middle of the Chimneys construction project would cause huge construction access and safety issues. Also, the lease on the realty building expires in three years. Developing plans to rework the upper parking lot before knowing the future of the realty building, which might be demolished, would be premature. When the Chimneys construction project is completed, we will have an approved Master Plan in place to deal with all our parking needs as well as the plan for the realty building. At that point, we can move forward if the Board decides.

Q: Couldn’t the Chimneys have been used for another purpose such as a new Postal Facility?

A: In repeated discussions with the architectural firm selected for the Chimneys project, it was determined that since the building currently has a very level and open main floor plan, it is best suited for modification into an administration building or a meeting space. And the lovely view should not be wasted on an administrative function. We want to give the best views to the Property Owners, thus they believe this is the best use of the building.

Q: I heard that some say we have plenty of meeting space. Others say we don’t. What’s the truth?

A: Back in 2016, a Wellness Collaborative-sponsored committee, which included a liaison from the Long Range Planning Committee, studied the situation with meeting spaces and determined it was a problem that had grown steadily worse, according to committee member Gay Abbott.

The committee had conducted a census on meeting rooms and their capacity by interviewing club presidents, group coordinators, the POA administration, POA Board members, Clubhouse staff and the Chapel staff among others to determine meeting space needs.

Jim Braley, the Chairman of the Programs and Events Committee, recently oversaw the process of booking as many as 120 groups vying for the combined spaces available at varying times in the Beach Club, the Canoe Lodge, the Fire Station, the Village Station, Clubhouse and the Chimneys. He explains that groups often want to book their gatherings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. He adds that although there may be adequate space available on other days, most groups request the mid-week time slots. He anticipates the number of groups and clubs requesting space will increase as Covid fears decline and the community expands.

Interior shot of the Chimneys.

Six years ago, the Chimneys wasn’t a meeting-place solution or immediate renovation project because of its lease to the outside caterer Talk of the Town, which managed outside weddings and events in the facility. However, it has long been identified as needing renovation after the expiration of the agreement.  Since our strategic plan calls for us to be a “residential” community, using a great Property Owner meeting spot for outside events is not consistent with our Mission statement.

Q: I heard the project was originally going to cost $500,000. Now, I hear it’s $1.25 million. How did the cost escalate?

A: The original design of the building did not involve much interior renovation, which is essential to a building that has endured nearly five decades of wear and tear. The original design left the bathrooms where they were, which squanders the part of the building with the most arresting views. It really is the prettiest spot in the building. The design also gave us only three meeting rooms that were very awkwardly arranged. For instance, meeting attendees in one room would have to walk through the other’s meetings to access the restrooms. The original design also left a very large empty commercial kitchen, which had no use. That design, while cheap, translated into a tremendous amount of wasted space.

Another factor to consider is that the cost of construction has escalated dramatically since we got those first estimates in 2020. The longer we wait to do this, the more expensive this project becomes. According to several Big Canoe builders, the material and labor costs of homes being built in the Big Canoe area have escalated significantly over the last two years. The $1.25 million project price tag was determined on Jan. 18, 2022, based on cost estimates that emerged during the bidding process that involved three different vendors. Tearing down and rebuilding the structure was estimated to be twice the cost of renovation, and the building was deemed to be in good overall structural shape that’s worth saving.

What we will ultimately get is a much better, more efficient redesign that will include six meeting rooms – in the ideal places in the building – each with bathroom access that doesn’t pass through another meeting room. All of this is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations and will include the needed upgrades to the building’s heating, air conditioning, ventilation and electrical systems.

A key element not included in the original $500,000 estimate was the cost of the design, furniture, such as tables and chairs; lighting fixtures; window treatments; and audio/visual capabilities, which are so essential to meeting spaces; and nice interior finishes consistent with Big Canoe quality similar to the current Village Station rooms. The original design put lipstick on a pig. All these essential elements are now included in our cost estimates. Property Owners would have been disappointed, saying “Is that all we got?” if we had moved forward with the $500,000 plan.

The floorplan of the renovated Chimneys allows for the facility to accommodate as many as six meetings at the same time.

Q: Why wasn’t this taken to a Property Owner vote?

A: The project falls under an expenditure to maintain, manage and operate existing Common Property and does not require a Property Owner vote. If the cost of enhancements reached the $1.28 million threshold, it would trigger a vote of approval among Property Owners. Recall that very little investment has gone into the Chimneys building since its construction in the early ’70s. The electrical system and HVAC are very outdated and, in some cases, non-functional, and the building does not meet current ADA requirements. It has no furniture, AV equipment and the sprinkler fire protection needs updating. Talk of the Town was responsible for furniture, which was removed when their lease expired. The building now sits empty, locked and unusable.  Therefore, the majority of the projected cost of the project is bringing the building up to code and furnishing it so it can be unlocked and enjoyed by Property Owners again.

Q: Why am I just hearing about it now? 

A: When the building was acquired in 2016, it was known at the time that work would be required after the expiration of the lease with Talk of the Town, the company that managed events in the Chimneys. The Board included this work in their November 2019 Facilities and Amenities Meeting presentation as a potential project as well as a Near Term Project in the July 2020 Town Hall. In the informational materials about the Capital Contribution Fee that Property Owners passed in 2020, it was repeatedly listed as a facility in need of major work. The Chimneys also was listed as a fall 2021 project in the 2020 Annual Meeting and the preliminary floorplan was presented in the July 2021 Town Hall. At the time of the April 2020 Long Range Plan, it was still considered a wedding space. However, based on our Strategic Plan, we are focusing the rehabilitation of the building on the needs of Property Owners, not outside groups. In the future, the Board will take steps to ensure the community is better informed prior to a decision of this magnitude.

Q: How are the requirements for the facility being determined?  How can Property Owners have input in this process? 

A: We have hired a top-notch architectural firm and interior designer who have established track records working on many club communities in the Southeast. We are letting these professionals execute the plan approved by the board, with weekly input from the general manager and key members of our staff. When we are farther along in the process, there may be a portion of the interior design stage where the Property Owners can participate, but we are not that far along yet.

Q: Previous Boards said the Chimneys would be the main place to have weddings?  Why has this changed?

A: Property Owner satisfaction surveys consistently listed rules enforcement as a key issue for the community. Hosting large outside events in the village core exacerbated our noise issues, particularly when wedding parties used the patio area for music. This resulted in many complaints from Property Owners living in the area who contacted the Department of Public Safety.

“We got a call about the noise at almost every outdoor event held where a band or DJ played,” says Ricky Jordan, Big Canoe’s Director of Public Safety. “In most cases, they were compliant. But even when they followed guidelines for the approved decibel levels included in the Rules and Regulations, we would still receive complaints which would result in our staff responding often several times to ensure compliance.”

The Village core area, and the Chimneys in particular, are best suited for Property Owner events and meetings. Large weddings belong on the other side of the lake at the Clubhouse, but only if the Clubhouse is modified so it can handle large events without affecting the Property Owner dining experience. Also, the size and structural configuration of the Chimneys building is not conducive to hosting large weddings that bring enough money to the bottom line to justify exclusive use of the facility.

Q: Will there be flexible space to accommodate larger groups but also be used by smaller ones?

A: The new design allows for the two rooms across the back to be combined to accommodate a larger group.  In addition, two rooms will normally be set up to host card groups that are so in demand in big canoe, and two more rooms will be set up for smaller committee, club, or leadership meetings. There will be excellent audiovisual capabilities in all the rooms for the meetings, and a warming kitchen similar to the layout at the Canoe Lodge will be provided.  At some point in the future if demand warrants, a deck can be built off the rear of the building where Property Owners and their groups can take in the beautiful view from that side of Lake Sconti and enjoy their low-key events outside. Doors are being built into the renovation to make this future expansion possible.

Q: Will it need to be staffed?

A: There is no need to staff the facility. The only POA staff requirement is to continue with housekeeping as has we have been doing for many years.

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