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Stairway to heaven 

Summit Ministries spreads the word and some worry in Manitou

click to enlarge Summits stamped this tax-exempt property with a white - cross. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Summits stamped this tax-exempt property with a white cross.

Each summer, for two weeks at a time, they come to Summit Ministries, climbing the stairs of the old Grand View Hotel by the hundreds.

They are teenagers, mostly, and their host in Manitou Springs is part summer camp, part Christian support group. Most have left, or will soon leave, the comfort and protection of their childhood homes. A flood of secular ideas and temptations awaits them in college and the broader world, and in Manitou's swirling eclecticism they come for a shot of purity and a chance at salvation.

While they are immersed in Summit's program, theologians instruct them on the virtues of viewing the world through a biblical lens. Biochemists and paleontologists argue for the primacy of scripture over science, blasting as fantasy the work of evolutionary biologists.

David Noebel, president of the tax-exempt nonprofit, tells them about an ongoing "homosexual revolution" that will likely rage for decades.

"Homosexuals are really clever, kids," he warns in a battle-weary voice, talking vaguely of a gay-sex scandal that led to the collapse of a Summit-affiliated Christian college he helped lead through the late 1970s. He explains that homosexuals "colonize" organizations, and he sounds like Yoda as he imparts some advice: "I always tell students, too: You don't take them on unless you know what you're doing."

Between lectures, students spill onto the streets, buying ice cream cones and playing video games amid crowds of camera-toting tourists and dreadlocked locals. Some students interact with the community, venturing on their own or in groups to spread the word.

The Rev. David Hunting of Manitou's Community Congregational Church encountered one of them in Soda Springs Park.

"Do you mind if I ask if you're a Christian?" a kid in his 20s asked.

Hunting said he didn't mind, and the Summit student followed with queries about his plans for heaven and personal salvation. Eventually, Hunting explained he was the minister at a Congregational Church.

"I told him I took the Bible seriously, not literally," he says, adding that he shared his view that other faiths and traditions can be different paths to the same proverbial summit.

"He thought that was interesting," Hunting says. "I certainly don't think I changed his mind."

Changing or safeguarding young minds is more Summit's business, and today things are humming. Since 1962, Summit has acquired the hotel and surrounding homes, cabins and property with a market valuation of nearly $4.4 million, according to El Paso County Assessor records. Behind a veneer of storefronts along Manitou Avenue, Summit's properties roll uphill to cover more than 3 acres on five city blocks.

Summit also owns 36 acres along U.S. Highway 24 near Waldo Canyon and 41 acres in Black Forest, properties together worth more than $1 million. The organization's net assets in March 2007, according to the most recent tax form filed with the Internal Revenue Service, were nearly $7 million. Summit sells homeschool curriculum materials, DVDs and books, including Noebel's text on competing worldviews, and in 2006 its total sales reached about $740,000.

Outside Manitou, Summit runs seminars for students in Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee and overseas. It offers adult conferences, a semester program and is now offering a study-abroad option at England's Oxford University.

Under the radar

Some in Manitou have viewed Summit's growth with apprehension. The town relies on local taxes for everything from paying employees to maintaining roads. With little room for new construction that would expand the tax base, a growing religious entity could effectively shrivel town coffers as it makes claims for tax exemption.

Kitty Clemens, director of Manitou's Economic Development Council, says Summit has grown while managing to stay "under the radar" for many. It's tricky to decipher Summit's property lines and holdings, even walking the streets around the old four-story hotel, now retrofitted with a prominent cross. Clemens herself was surprised when she saw an assessor's map showing how much land Summit owns.

"If you don't live nearby one of the properties, you wouldn't know how many [Noebel] has purchased," she says.

Being a religious nonprofit does not automatically exempt Summit from property taxes. Religious groups must apply to be taken off tax rolls through the state's Division of Property Taxation. Interestingly, Summit applied to exempt the hotel twice, in 1974 and 1981, and was denied both times.

Colorado lawmakers approved legislation in 1989 effectively broadening the range of religious uses that would make a property eligible for exemption. Summit re-applied, and in 1992 the tax division approved exemptions for the hotel, a home on Mohawk Place used as an office, and for two-thirds the value of a property covered with 28 cabins and other buildings.

Seven other homes Summit owns in the immediate area were purchased between 1998 and 2001, and there are no applications on file to exempt them from taxes. Summit officials say the buildings, bought to serve as a buffer between the summer program and neighboring homes, are used for offices and employee housing.

click to enlarge 2b6d_cover-26842.jpeg

Through the books

Much of what is now quaint and charming about Manitou was crumbly and forgotten when Summit acquired the Grand View Hotel in 1962. Noebel chuckles as he talks about buying the taped-off, abandoned building for $20,000 in back taxes.

"Had the feds opened the front door, they would have hit about $100,000 of antiques," he says.

Manitou and Summit have both blossomed since then. The town has become a sort of living theme park. Its rich history, new-age amenities and natural beauty even attracted a recent New York Times story, headlined "In Colorado, a "Hippie Mayberry.'"

Summit's summer program, after weathering a tough spell in the 1970s, now is booming. Year-round employees have become regular jet-setters, with business taking them to Australia, England and Hong Kong. Summit's online store is a small clearinghouse of homeschool materials, recorded lectures and religious texts.

Like any store, Summit is required to collect sales tax. For online sales, it must collect the state rate for Colorado deliveries, along with local rates if the delivery address is in the same taxing districts.

Ken Olson, a Manitou resident for nearly four decades, was serving on the Economic Development Council in 2002 when he started looking into whether the city was seeing its share of those revenues. He amassed a pile of documents detailing Summit's activities. He used Summit's Web site to see what would happen if he bought books and videos, entering a Manitou address and then stopping before entering a credit-card number.

Printed invoices from the aborted transactions show Summit was only charging the state sales-tax rate.

Olson wrote his concerns in a May 2003 letter to the state revenue department. In 2004, he explained his findings in a letter to city officials: A state revenue staffer was told Summit did not sell anything, but rather asked for contributions.

Olson's frustration is apparent in a 2005 letter, again to city officials. He suggests other nonprofits might avoid the expense of record-keeping and offer customers discounts by relying on contributions rather than setting prices for products and services.

Asked early this year about his investigation, Olson was reluctant at first to dig the documents out of storage. Then he became animated talking about how the city might be getting short-changed.

"It needs every dollar it can get," he says.

Manitou's total sales-tax rate is 8.8 percent. The state takes its cut and sends shares to the county and transportation authority; what's left, slightly less than half of the total, goes to the city.

The amount of sales tax collected from a business or organization is not public information, but Mike Leslie, the city's finance director, says Manitou does receive sales-tax revenue from Summit Ministries. According to city statistics, 437 businesses and organizations pay sales tax to the city. Revenue from Summit places it 142nd among them, Leslie says, and records show some amount of tax collection going back at least 10 years.

Without access to Summit's books, it's difficult to evaluate whether the city is getting its due. John Stonestreet, Summit's executive director, says sales tax is "built in" to the cost of products it offers.

"We try to be very careful about that," he says.

The explanation is not very clear, however, as sales tax seems to vary depending on how items are purchased. Understanding the Times, Noebel's 516-page text arguing the supremacy of a Christian worldview, lists for $21.95 on Summit's Web site.

After entering a Manitou Springs address, the site produces an invoice adding $1.08 for Colorado sales tax. That amounts to a 4.9 percent tax, the amount charged for the state, county and regional transportation authority. Manitou's tax would add an additional 3.9 percent, but it isn't charged.

Retail sales seem to involve a different arithmetic at Summit's Manitou office, where women wearing telephone headsets preside over a neat assemblage of desks and boxes. One woman quickly finds a copy of Noebel's book and swipes a credit card for a straight $21.95.

She seems surprised when asked about sales tax.

"Don't worry about it," she says with a wave of her hand. "I'll figure it out later."

With sales tax added sometimes and not at others, such calculations must be complicated.

click to enlarge David Noebel calls homosexuality immoral.
  • David Noebel calls homosexuality immoral.

Mark Couch, a Department of Revenue spokesman and legislative liaison, says that, as a general practice, sales tax should be added to a product's listed price. If a nonprofit list offers products for a suggested contribution, there wouldn't be sales tax at all.

As for Summit's compliance with state tax laws, Couch has less to say.

"We don't talk about individual taxpayers," he says.

Much to love

Summit employees seem a cohesive bunch. A woman named Jennifer, who works as Noebel's assistant, describes it as a big family. She came to a Summit camp in the late 1980s and later joined the staff.

Many others have long histories with the organization. Stonestreet started teaching for Summit in 1999, directing its conferences in other states before moving to Manitou last fall as executive director. Sitting in a home that serves as his office, Stonestreet is generally open and relaxed as he talks for nearly two hours about theology and morality. He argues for Christian worldview and critiques others while rattling off names of prominent thinkers at a dizzying pace: Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault.

He keeps the same tone as he talks about Summit's approach factoring sales tax into its products. "We try to be transparent," he says. He's nonchalant as he deflects a question about Summit's tax exemptions hurting Manitou.

"We also send 1,200 kids down into Manitou to buy ice cream, eat at restaurants and buy souvenirs, so there's a good bit of tax income that comes directly from our students," he says.

Noebel eventually joins the conversation, and Stonestreet exhibits signs of impatience, as if to suggest Noebel's time can only be parsed out in small doses.

Just back from trips to Australia and England, however, Noebel does not seem in a great hurry. Dressed neatly in slacks, polished shoes and a crisp shirt, he has a professorial air about him.

The inspiration for Summit's program and its college-prep Christianity seems to have come from Noebel's own experience as a philosophy graduate student in Wisconsin. "I nearly lost my Christian faith," he says, declining to elaborate.

"It motivated me, that's for sure," he says. "It motivated me."

Noebel left the program and helped evangelist Billy James Hargis in Tulsa, Okla., with his organization, the Christian Crusade Against Communism. They started Summit as a summer program in 1962. In 1970, Noebel says, they established American Christian College, also in Tulsa.

Plans for the college fell apart after five students, four of them men, came forward alleging they had sex with Hargis. The story made national news in 1976, and Noebel says he hates to think about it, much less speak of it.

"Read it in Time magazine," he says.

(In a recorded lecture, Noebel suggests the gay-sex scandal went far beyond Hargis' actions. He declines to elaborate in an e-mail: "That history will never be written.")

Summit struggled after the scandal, Noebel says, but finally got a boost of support in 1989 after Focus on the Family's James Dobson sent his son through the program and then endorsed it.

"It just exploded after that," Noebel says.

The organization's growth has come in the face of what Noebel describes as a great and continuing struggle. He considers the secular viewpoint espoused by many educators to be its own religion, and laments that "we can't have any Christianity in the classroom." With apparent horror, he speaks of college professors requiring students to support gay issues and even to go out and "act out the homosexual role."

"Why force students to do things that are immoral?" he asks. "It's an immoral lifestyle."

Noebel sees the Christian worldview facing attack from many directions. It's hard to know, when speaking to him, whether Manitou reflects those threats or not. ("We love Manitou," he says.)

And the town, sleepy through much of the winter, loves it when the students come back, he says. They spend money and regularly go out into the city to pick up trash. He dismisses the suggestion that Summit's success could in any way amount to a loss for Manitou.

"We get along with the city very well," he says. "Very well."

lane@csindy.com

Ever wonder?
With this week's story on Summit Ministries, the Indy begins an irregular series investigating a few local curiosities. If there's some person, place or thing woven into the fabric of this area that you've always wondered about that you somehow just know would make for an interesting story send us an e-mail at newsroom@csindy.com.

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