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Spotsylvania reneges on gift to nonprofit

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Just a year after receiving $200,000 in taxpayer money to set up shop in Spotsylvania County, the National Academy of Environmental Design is now saying it may go elsewhere.

That’s because, for the second time this year, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted against giving the nonprofit an additional $200,000 as was originally promised.

Based on an agreement approved last summer by the current board, the county was scheduled to allocate $200,000 in July of this year and another $100,000 in December—for a total of $500,000 over 18 months.

But the majority of supervisors—Ann Heidig, Timothy McLaughlin, David Ross and Paul Trampe—say they aren’t convinced the county will see a return on its investment. They wonder whether the academy will receive enough outside funding to survive.

Supervisors in June voted to hold off on the additional funding.

Linda Sorrento, the academy’s executive director, said in a telephone interview that the nonprofit would decide on its future in Spotsylvania by November.

“Things could change or emerge differently,” she said, adding that she appreciates the funding to date. “But we can’t extend [a decision] for too long because it’s been months that we’ve been in this time of uncertainty, and that’s not healthy for an organization.”

Trampe said at the meeting that his only foray into the nonprofit world resulted in him being laid off after four months. The nonprofit had hired him without having the full funding for his position, he said.

“It’s a very precarious existence, and I’d be concerned about not having funding in place for the very near future,” he said of the academy.

Ironically, only months earlier, an Economic Development Authority member had wondered if the academy needed the local money given all of the grants it planned to collect. The organization must solicit funding or donations from at least 20 private and public organizations this year and in 2014, according to its agreement with the county.

Supervisor Heidig said she hasn’t seen any private entities stepping forward with funding.

“I’m very uncomfortable with that,” she said.

The National Academy of Environmental Design, or NAED, describes itself as a coalition of academics and industry leaders reaching more than 500,000 people in environmental design fields. Founded in 2009, it studies a host of issues—from climate change, to water quality to energy-efficient technology—with a vision of “healthy, safe and livable communities for today and tomorrow’s children.”

Right now, the nonprofit has only an executive director and an 800-square-foot office at the future site of Luck Stone’s Ni Village development off U.S. 1. Luck Stone views the NAED as a catalyst for its Center for Sustainability and Green Technologies, which it says is projected to create more than 500 jobs and add millions in tax revenue.

Supervisor Gary Skinner, who voted in favor of the additional funding along with veteran supervisors Emmitt Marshall and Benjamin Pitts, said the county was reneging on its contract with the academy.

“Any new business takes a little time to grow,” he said. He later added: “It would be shameful for us to go ahead and not offer them a continuation of this program.”

In an email Wednesday, Pitts said the decision may cause other businesses to be cautious in their dealings with the county.

“The decision may very well turn out to be a black eye for the county when it comes to attracting or attempting to attract future economic development projects for Spotsylvania County,” Pitts wrote.

Skinner asked Sorrento, the group’s executive director, about the consequences of not approving the funding.

She replied that the organization has alternative plans.

“We have another location in mind and without the funding here, we need to suspend operations,” she said.

That response upset Supervisor Ross, who said he felt that his arm was being twisted.

“To hear that tonight is a little upsetting because we’ve already invested $200,000 in taxpayer money,” he said.

Ross did say he’d be open to reconsidering the organization’s request in January.

It’s unclear if Spotsylvania would be able to reclaim the $200,000 if the nonprofit relocates. Supervisor Trampe said he thinks it could, though he didn’t know all of the legal technicalities.

Much of the initial county funding went toward the executive director’s salary. The second round of funding would also help pay that salary, in addition to compensation for a second staff member, Sorrento said.

That employee was actually supposed to have been hired by April of this year, based on NAED’s agreement with the county.

Sorrento, addressing concerns about the organization’s viability, said her plan all along was to familiarize herself with the community, develop a prospectus and then solicit outside funding.

She has been working with the University of Mary Washington, Spotsylvania schools, the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and others. In fact, she is scheduled to participate in a chamber program in October to help businesses become environmentally friendly.

The NAED is also scheduled to host a national workshop on water issues—such as rising sea levels—in Spotsylvania next year.

“What has happened with this unsettling, uncertain period, it’s just put us behind our projected schedule to get some of this work done,” Sorrento said. “That’s why we have to make a decision if this is a workable partnership.”

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402