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Left Dangling

Fate of Four Winds Ropes Course up in the air

By Bruce Robinson

IF YOU KNOW where to look, you can spot the small wooden platforms high in the trees that cluster on the hillsides above the Big Barn at Ocean Song Farms and Wilderness Center, along with the harder-to-see cables that snake between the stately firs and gnarled oaks. These carefully installed bits of carpentry and hardware are the tools of the Four Winds Ropes Course, a for-profit outdoor "experiential training" company that has been operating on 10 acres of the Ocean Song property since 1992 and generating a steady stream of income for the financially strapped non-profit environmental center.

"We provided them with between $10,000 and $20,000 a year," says John Springer, marketing director for Four Winds, "for which they had to do nothing. They provided the land."

Although Four Winds holds a 10-year lease, the company's future for the past year has been much like its clients: up in the air. In June of 1995, soon after the change in ownership at Ocean Song that made EcoCorps the dominant partner, the ropes course operators received a letter invoking the escape clause in the lease, and giving the required one-year notice that the Four Winds program would have to either be bought out or find a new home elsewhere.

The letter was a shock. After struggling to break even in its early years, the company had finally become profitable, establishing a national reputation with corporate clients while continuing to offer low-cost programs for hundreds of local school students every year. "Everything was going so well," Springer says. "To get that letter was staggering."

Subsequent developments are a little murky. In February of this year, the Heirloom Land Trust board voted to rescind the letter. EcoCorps also made an "insultingly low" offer to buy out the company at another point, sources say. Initial indications were that some retreat buildings were planned for the ropes course site, but that plan was later abandoned. Or perhaps it was never seriously intended.

"It became clear that no building was to be built, but it wasn't clear why we were being asked to leave," Springer says. "We said, 'Put a building anywhere else. We're meeting your charter here.' "

Meanwhile, Four Winds' repeated efforts to meet with the decision makers from EcoCorps have been ignored.

The year has passed and Four Winds continues to operate its ropes course--but warily. "It's become apparent that their intention is to take over the ropes course," Springer asserts. "They want to own and operate a ropes course there."

With bookings stretching well into the months ahead, Four Winds is clinging to hope that it can still find a comfortable way to stay put. In the past week, Four Winds served the board of directors with formal acceptance of the retraction of the letter that first sought to cancel its lease, which should guarantee the ropes course a place at Ocean Song for at least another year.

At the same time, Four Winds is exploring options elsewhere just in case the other shoe might still drop.

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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