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The campus of the Brethren Service Center, in New Windsor is pictured on November 15, 2014.
The campus of the Brethren Service Center, in New Windsor is pictured on November 15, 2014. (KEN KOONSSTAFF PHOTO, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The bucolic grounds of the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor have served as the center for worldwide humanitarian relief efforts by the Illinois-based Church of the Brethren and affiliated organizations for more than 65 years. That may soon change. Church of the Brethren officials have confirmed that the campus and some or all of its seven buildings are for sale.

"The board has been in a discernment process over the last few years," said LeAnn Harnist, treasurer and executive director of organization resources. "I think they have come to the conclusion that the property is more than we need for our own programs, so our best decision is to liquidate."

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The church has yet to select a broker for the sale, set a price for the property or even to decide if the entire campus will be sold, according to Harnist. They are, however, interested in speaking with potential buyers.

"We're in the process of determining what kind of broker relationship we need," she said. "If someone has an interest and comes forward, we are willing to entertain conversation ... even before we have a broker secured."

Harnist stressed that the Church of the Brethren operations headquartered at the Brethren Center — which include the Brethren Disaster Ministries, Material Resources and Children's Disaster Services — will continue their work both now and after any potential sale. The church does not yet have a new home in mind for these operations, but Harnist said they would likely stay in the region.

"We do feel there is good reason to have a presence in the East," Harnist said. "I can't say where that would be or what that might look like, but at this time there is not an inclination to have all our programs in Illinois."

What is less certain is the future of the tenants that utilize various buildings on the campus, which include nonprofits such as SERRV, IMA World Health, as well as one building rented out as residential apartments.

"Our commitment is certainly to lease with [the tenants] as long as we are owners," Harnist said. "They are using some of three different buildings. ... It would depend on what we determine is to be sold."

SERRV, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating poverty, has operated a fair trade gift shop on the New Windsor campus since the 1940s, and was originally a part of the Church of the Brethren, according to the SERRV website. The organization has been preparing for the possibility of having to relocate for some time, according to CEO and President Bob Chase.

"We have been aware for some time they have been considering this. We are absolutely committed to staying in Carroll County," Chase said. "We have already taken a look at the warehouse market in Westminster and looked at some options there in the event that we would have to relocate. We have a very solid employee base, and we could not afford to lose them and their experience."

Spokespersons from IMA World Health, an organization that utilizes the Brethren Center warehouse to ship medical supplies around the world, were more circumspect and would only issue a collective statement in response to inquiries from the Times.

"We've been a long time partner of the Brethren Service Center and the Church of the Brethren is a founding member of IMA," the statement read. "We hope to be here for as long as we can and we support them in whatever they need to do."

The Church of the Brethren purchased the Brethren Center Property, which had formerly been the site of Blue Ridge College, in 1944, according to Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, the church's director of news services. Initially focused on World War II relief efforts, the postwar church operations in New Windsor evolved toward their current focus on disaster relief.

"Our disaster relief services are headquartered there and we have warehouse space," Brumbaugh-Cayford said. "They ship relief goods on behalf of a number of partner organizations like Lutheran World Relief ... and Church World Service."

The Brethren Center has also served as a training center for volunteers in various church ministries, according to Brumbaugh-Cayford, and a central point for refugee resettlement programs.

The Brethren Service Center also housed the Brethren Conference Center, a self-funded unit of the church that operated out of three buildings on the campus, with meeting rooms and a professional kitchen that was a popular convention and retreat center, according to Brumbaugh-Cayford. The financial troubles that began to plague the conference center eight years ago somewhat foreshadowed the decision to sell the property today, she said.

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"The conference center business was hit really hard in late 2008 along with the economic downturn. It never really recovered. At a certain point, it was losing so much money it was no longer financially viable," Brumbaugh-Cayford said. "The board had to make a really difficult decision to close it."

The conference center was shuttered in 2011 after having "Accumulated a negative asset balance exceeding $660,000," in the words of an Oct. 22 post on the Church of the Brethren website.

The conference center building has since gone unused, according to Harnist, creating a negative cash-flow snowball that lead to the entire campus becoming more than the church could really afford.

"We've had one building that has been unutilized altogether and others that have decreased in the amount they are utilized," she said. "We have been exploring tenant relationships with different groups that we've come in contact with and none of those opportunities really panned out."

Whatever happens to the Brethren Center property will be of interest to the town of New Windsor — which would certainly like to avoid an empty, unused campus in town, according to Mayor Neal Roop.

Roop was fairly optimistic in an interview however and said he believed it was likely that a new owner would allow many of the existing tenants to stay while bringing visitors to the town of New Windsor by revitalizing the currently shuttered conference center.

"I wouldn't say we're not concerned about the Brethren Service Center," Roop said. "I just feel that there is a lot of potential there. It wasn't that many years ago when the conference center was booked every weekend with church groups ... and had a lot going on and I just see that happening again."

The conference center may well thrive under new ownership, but whatever happens it will not happen overnight, according to Brumbaugh-Cayford, who also indicated that Church of the Brethren, at least, is prepared to be patient.

"It's not easy to market a property like this, so it may take a while," she said.

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

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