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Rejuvenated Lake Junaluska Looks Toward Second Century

Cory Vaillancourt
Standing on the balcony of the Lambuth Inn (left to right) Ken Howle, Bill Lowry and Mary Bates

For generations, Methodists from across the United States have converged on a small community in Haywood County that’s been a place of renewal and transformation.  But Lake Junaluska has undergone some transformation of its own over the past few years, and as the historic Christian retreat emerges from funding cuts and the Great Recession, it’s poised remain an important economic engine well into its second century.  

Nestled around a small artificial lake tucked away in a scenic valley just outside Waynesville, the Lake Junaluska Assembly was established in 1913 as a conference and retreat center for Methodists. Homes, auditoriums and hotels began to spring up at the site, as did church busses from around the Southeast, bringing thousands of visitors each year searching for spiritual renewal and transformation.  “It’s grown into being a top destination for people from around the United States,” said Lake Junaluska Executive Director Ken Howle.  “Since our inception, the plan was that we would be both a community of private homes but then also a meeting location and a conference center where people could come and assemble, and the two really work hand in hand.”

Residents and visitors alike take advantage of a plethora of physical activities like canoeing, paddle boarding, kayaking, golfing or just strolling the miles of lakeside walking trails, all in full view of the idyllic splendor of the Western North Carolina mountains. But Lake Junaluska still holds an intense spiritual meaning for Methodists.   “This is been a place where over the last 50-plus years, more Methodist ministers have been ordained, more United Methodist bishops have been elected and consecrated, than any place in the world,” said Howle.

And as those pastors go out into the world, they’ll retain that connection to the Lake.

“Methodist pastors typically will move around to different appointments throughout their career, but Lake Junaluska is the place that remained stable for them,” he said. “You can talk to a lot of children of Methodist pastors and when you ask them where they’re from, they’ll probably say, ‘The only place I’m consistently from is Lake Junaluska,’ because that’s where they go each year.”

Among them may be a several members of a well-known musical group.  “The Avett family has a home here at Lake Junaluska. The Avett Brothers have visited here periodically. Our name is mentioned in one of their songs. We’re always thrilled to see them here on the property,” Howle said. “I’ve never had them tell me this, but my guess is they find the same type of renewal here that all of our other guests find as well.”

In 2008, the United Methodist Church restructured and made Lake Junaluska a standalone entity and by 2012, the Lake didn’t receive any funding from the UMC at all.  Since then, the Lake’s business model has changed to one of self-sustainability. Long an important economic driver in the local tourism economy, the Lake has embarked on an extensive campaign of renovations designed to keep it that way.  “The renovations since 2012 are extensive,” he said. “Just this year alone we’re investing $5 million into improvements throughout the entire property. That includes a $3.2 million renovation of the Lambuth Inn, which is the follow-up to a similar renovation of the Terrace Hotel that was three years ago.”  The Lambuth Inn is a historic hotel with more than 130 guest rooms, perched atop a hill that commands an incredible view of the grounds and the surrounding landscape.  Howle calls it the “crown jewel” of the Lake.

Retired Mississippi pastor Bill Lowry lives at lake Junaluska and is just 10 years younger than the 98 year-old inn.  “The list of recognizable personalities who’ve walked in the doors of this building is long indeed,” said Lowry. “Eleanor Roosevelt was here, Jimmy Carter was here, Richard Nixon was here. If you start getting into the realm of the religious leaders it’s a long, long list indeed.”

The rejuvenated Lambuth still has that same feel, according to Marketing Manager Mary Bates.  “The renovations were incredible in how they were able to preserve the historic nature of Lambuth Inn,” Bates said, “but also upgraded to the modern expectations of what guests are wanting in hotel today,”

Today, tomorrow and for the next hundred years.