Some local towns will spend thousands on out-of-town retreats

aspecht@newsobserver.com
aramos@newsobserver.com
January 9, 2014 

— At least three governing boards in western Wake County are taking their annual retreat on the road this year, while one is staying home.

Cary expects to pay about $16,000 to send its Town Council and 22 staff members on a two-day, one-night trip to the Hawthorne Inn and Conference Center in Winston-Salem. The budget includes lodging, food, a tour of the city and $4,000 for a facilitator.

Morrisville and Holly Springs each expects to spend about $4,000 on two-day retreats out of town. Morrisville is going to Wilmington on Jan. 25, while Holly Springs is going to Southern Pines on Feb. 14.

Meanwhile, Apex leaders are staying in town, and Fuquay-Varina commissioners haven’t decided on a location for their retreat.

The goal of retreats is to allow town leaders to focus on bigger issues, such a growth trends. Regular town board meetings are often about specific issues such as rezoning requests.

During the recession, some governing boards chose to host in-town retreats to save money.

Cary stayed home from 2009 to 2011, then traveled to Wilmington in 2012 and New Bern last year.

This is the first time since 2007 Morrisville is traveling for a retreat.

Local governments are sometimes criticized for taking out-of-town retreats. Critics argue they are too expensive and too far away from constituents who want to observe.

But some town leaders say the distance and cost are worth eliminating distractions and increasing productivity.

Participants couldn’t stay focused during the at-home retreat in 2011, said Cary Town Councilman Don Frantz. That year, Cary spent $10,500 for the event.

“Council members would get calls from their family … and next thing we know a council member’s leaving early to go pick up a kid or something,” he said.

Holding the retreat in town didn’t boost public attendance, Frantz recalled.

Holly Springs has had similar experiences with in-town retreats, Town Manager Chuck Simmons said.

“A few years ago we held one of our retreats in Wake County. It was one of our least-productive retreats,” he said.

Holly Springs leaders will go to the Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Course, where the council has gone in years past.

Mayor Dick Sears said the outing is the best use of the town’s time.

“We do not – I repeat, we do not – play golf,” Sears said at a recent Town Council meeting.

A bonding experience

Morrisville leaders hope leaving town will help them bond. The town has a new mayor, two new council members and a new town manager.

Former Councilman Mark Stohlman was elected mayor in November, when voters also elected TJ Cawley and Vicki Scroggins-Johnson to the council. Town Manager Martha Wheelock started with the town in September.

The council, department directors, and other senior staff will go to the Hilton in Wilmington. The $4,000 cost includes rented meeting space, catering and hotel rooms for the council and about eight staffers, Wheelock said.

“It is something we thought long and hard about,” she said. “We want to be fiscally responsible. It takes more of a focused commitment to go away. ... Being more relaxed helps the creative juices flow.”

In order to make the most of the retreat, Wheelock wants to focus less on departmental reports and more on long-range planning such as capital projects and building a downtown.

To make up for the cost of going to Wilmington, Morrisville won’t hire a facilitator, which used to cost about $1,000 to $5,000, she said.

“We spent almost as much as that staying in town,” Wheelock said. “I do believe we’ve tried to be cost-effective.”

‘Money is a great concern’

Time and money are the reasons behind Apex leaders’ decision to stay in town for this year’s retreat in March, said Town Manager Bruce Radford.

Time spent traveling could be used on other things, he said. Going away also means spending thousands on food, lodging and mileage reimbursements for employees who drive their own vehicles.

“Money is a great concern,” Radford said. “And it doesn’t play well with the public. (Town retreats) aren’t something that’s on everyone’s radar. But there are a few people who will wonder if the money could be spent differently or saved.”

Apex has not gone out of town for a retreat for at least the last 13 years, but Radford stopped short of saying he opposes the idea.

“It depends on how it plays in their communities,” he said. “I don’t want to be the anti-(retreat) guy.”

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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