Can a counterculture retreat stay true to its mission?
A few weeks after the Little Devil and Whitewater fires almost destroyed the Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center, I made my first pilgrimage to the resort.
It was an opportune time for a business editor to visit an intentional community and worker-owned cooperative.
Why? Because the much-beloved retreat, located ten miles northeast of Detroit near the Willamette National Forest, recently became a financially successful enterprise. Revenues in 2016 clocked in at $4.7 million, and the center meets its 100-person capacity most days of the year.
Breitenbush served more than 25,000 guests over the past 12 months. Were it not for the fires, occupancy might have shot past 38,000, says marketing and events director Brinton Reed.
It wasn’t always thus. Structured as a workers’ co-op since 1989, the 153-acre center used to consider 15 overnight visitors a success, says business director Peter Moore. “It’s only in the last few years that our reputation has grown, and with it loyalty. Some people come two to three times a year.”
Moore, 67, has lived at the site on and off since 1978. “In recent years we've been a profitable enterprise,” he says. ”It’s mind blowing.”
Geothermal hot spring at Breitenbush
When the retreat posts a profit, the 43 (give or take a few) member-owners can choose to grant themselves a dividend. Profit last year accounted for about 7% of revenue — around $33,000, which was equally divided among the owners, Moore says.
Like other Oregon hotels and resorts, Breitenbush owes its growing popularity in part to demographic changes. The state's population has exploded, many of the new residents are affluent and more international visitors seek out the region as a tourism destination.
The ever-increasing vogueishness of yoga and meditation is another factor boosting visitation. Breitenbush hosts 150 New Age and holistic classes and workshops annually.
“As industries, they are growing pretty quickly,” says Reed. “It’s only predicted to increase.”
Wander the grounds, and breathe in the retreat's counterculture vibe. The communal meals are vegetarian. The geothermal hot springs are clothing-optional.
Except for three positions, all workers earn minimum wage. (Moore, one of the exceptions, makes $13 per hour.) Child care is free, and health benefits are Cadillac quality. “This is a worker-owned co-op,” Moore says. “The workers want really great health care.”
But if the worker model is standing the test of our corporate capitalist times, change is inevitable.
Once you hit a certain level of revenue, says Reed, "you grow in the business to something that is not quite your mom and pop and where a lot of systems aren’t working so well if they’re informal.”
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Many of the structures are almost a century old and need upgrades. (The original resort was constructed in 1927.) An eco-village for staff members is underway. A $500,000 new reservoir came on line last year.
As the resort evolves into a bigger business, Breitenbush has started contracting out some of the work and hiring people with specific expertise — who are committed to the model and mission.
“We’ve got a business director, finance director, book keeper,” says Reed, a 41-year-old former Intel user experience manager who has worked at Breitenbush for a little over a year. “These are positions that require some really astute skills.”
Cabin at Breitenbush
A stay at Breitenbush is not cheap: The resort instituted a 11.2% increase starting May 2017. The driving force was a hike in the minimum wage, Reed says. Peak weekend rates for a cabin with bath run $165 a night per adult; $130 without bath. (Prices include three meals per day.)
The community took a $500,000 loss fighting the fires, which occured during peak summer season.
Like many longtime businesses, the resort does struggle to manage growth.
Maintaining a peaceful atmosphere is a challenge, Reed says. “The more people we have here, the less of a tranquil sanctuary we can be for people. We like to keep things quiet, keep things mellow.”
Referring to the bi-weekly board of directors' meetings, Moore says: “This is a messy democracy, and things are really debated. Some people wish we had less guests; some people would like to offer a coffee and tea shop. [No coffee is served on the premises]. Some people want to offer wine with dinner. Others say no."
Reed says he is incorporating new workshops like ecstatic dance — "things a lot of us feel are kind of new, interesting and connect us with the vibrancy of young people that are looking for alternative ways."
Concessions to modern lifestyles won't erode the core mission, he says. "The roots are very hippie, and there is a perception that we are becoming streamlined. But it’s a very resilient community."