As we’ve traversed our first seven years in this project, the conceptual map we began with has become the lived territory of our real, on-the-ground experience. Here we’ll give an overview of our multi-phased project plan, with a special focus on the financial viability and timeline. But first we’ll begin with the important highlights of what’s happened so far.
A key consideration while reading this Map is that, while this overview will be heavily focused on the financial picture, money is but one of many critical facets that will grow the real wealth of this place and unfold the opportunities it presents us. Therefore, we keep in mind that 'the map is not the territory' and yet having a good map is incredibly helpful as we venture forth with our whole beings into a mysterious, emergent and participatory future. (1)
The Financial Territory So Far
We began our journey as stewards on January 1, 2016 with $1.2M in privately financed ‘mortgage’ debt (roughly ⅔ of the total $2M purchase price of the land). Our plan began with “Phase 1,” a 7-year process to revitalize Morton’s and pay off our purchase debt, as well as establish our watershed restoration work and the culture of our newly birthed Aletheia community.
That first year, we operated Morton’s Warm Springs and confirmed it could indeed cover all the costs of the land minus the mortgage debt interest payments. We planned for an increase in revenue with the business revitalization, but we also needed additional investment to buy time as there was more than just mortgage debt to pay back. Like many places, the land had a considerable amount of inherited, or place-based debt. You could think of this as deferred maintenance, yes, but it was far more than just infrastructural neglect. The relationships and reputation of this place were also in disrepair, its belonging to local people was fractured, it had become completely unmoored from its indigenous roots and the sacredness it once knew, its ecology had spent decades at the whim of unconscious use and abuse, and it could no longer adequately support those who needed to be here for its care.
A holistic framework that’s useful to understand this debt is Sean Esbjörn-Hargens' MetaImpact Framework, which describes ten different capital domains of wealth or value (e.g. financial, natural, social, psychological, spiritual, health, etc.).(2) As with much of the world, economic forces over the years had led to the creation of financial capital at the expense of other domains. Morton’s significant loss of social capital, for example, could be seen in its relationship with a neighborhood watchdog group that historically opposed new projects here. Like a local antibody, this group prevented past development plans that would have furthered the financial gain of the owners at the expense of everything else. We saw another example in the Springs’ lost ability to adequately house or pay for quality year-round caretakers. This one was a webbed loss in social, human and infrastructural capital and it resulted in a cultural deficit as well from countless years of low-paid, mostly unskilled seasonal workers with no real care for the place beyond a summer job.
As the new stewards our intentions were quite different. We saw that what was needed to truly heal the land and to succeed would require a radical departure from the ‘business as usual’ that had come before us. We needed to prioritize reinvesting in the land in all its domains. This presented us with our first big strategic challenge since we were tied to large monthly interest payments on our $1.2M mortgage. We had to manage that debt in such a way that we could begin the work of healing and building sustainable foundations for the decades ahead.
We put the call out for new Community Member Investors (CMI’s), as well as larger Impact Investors, to refinance our purchase debt, or effectively buy-out our higher-rate, shorter-term bridge loan and owner-carries mortgage ($200K and $1M, respectively), swapping them out with 7-year loans of 2% or less. This serves a multitude of essential functions. Not only does it stagger our repayment schedules, breaking them into small chunks that can be sustainably repaid, it also offers both us and new community members the opportunity to explore together in an extended “dating period” where we can build mutual trust, which would then predicate any future equity sharing.
That first year on the ground in 2016 was a big transition year. While we learned how the business had functioned before us and began critical infrastructure repairs, cash flow was extremely tight and new loans covered our debt interest payments as well as some operational costs. On the land, we had only two Core Team members each working between 25-30 hours+/week (in addition to offsite jobs), along with a Trial Steward who was there part-time for 6 months. We were also supported by one part-time Core Team intern and two nonresidential part-time Stewards. While we paid our seasonal staff, no one else took home a salary for their work; we plowed all the money we could back into the project.
Our second year was quite different. 2017 was a stabilizing year where we finally got to begin building up some foundations. The cafe opened, we found better staff and were able to pay them a bit more, and the pools were warmer and cleaner than in over a decade. We saw revenue jump up 61% and we were able to cover all operational costs (including property taxes and insurance) with business income. We also welcomed a third full-time resident Steward onto the land, saw our part-time support community grow substantially, and we were able to finally pay ourselves - but only for the hours worked during the summer season.
A total of twelve new Community Member Investors were welcomed on between Years 1-3 (2016-2018), bringing in $400K in new low-interest rate loans. The first $100K was part of the $2M purchase, the next $100K was used primarily to make interest payments while we revitalized the business, and the last $200K allowed us to repay our high-interest rate, short-term bridge loan in full - a huge milestone and a truly wonderful accomplishment!
Our third year on the land, 2018, was a reboot year where we set up norms that we’ll be building off of for decades to come. Overall revenue jumped up another 28%, with profit up an incredible 78% over 2017. Not only were we able to cover all operational costs this year, the business was also able to cover all our debt interest payments for the first time - a huge milestone, and several years ahead of schedule! Also, with our increased cash flow this year we’ve begun a trial on a new Steward stipend where our first two Core Team members, along with our first full-time Steward, are now receiving $1K/month year-round (including the summer) for their work. This stipend budget was set conservatively low with the expectation that we could see it grow over time with future revenue increases.
In our fourth year, 2019, we saw our strongest season yet! It was also a year of riding out the bumbs of deep corrections, learnings and fine tunings that had happened from the previous year or two. Overall Revenue was up another 10% ($316K vs. $286K in 2018), with General Admission going up 19% ($166K vs. $140K). Memberships also climbed up 11%, and our Cafe 108° was finally beginning to strengthen, showing a 25% increase in revenue ($49K vs $39K).
As of this update we’re in our fifth year on the land. 2020 we first saw as our year of sustainability. Now we understand that it is our year of healing and building foundations for the longer arc to come. While we had, like so many, planned for a very different year prior to the global pandemic and the economic shut-downs from ubiquitous shelter-in-place orders, there has been a silver lining to the upheaval and extreme pivot to "business as usual." Opening the Springs this year for our usual summer operations would have meant that we’d do so at a significant financial loss while facing substantial risks to the health, safety and wellbeing of all involved. So while our choice has been to remain closed to the public for the duration of 2020 (which is, perhaps, a historic first in the Springs' long history), we've instead been able to turn toward a repair, re-examination and planning process that we would have never otherwise had the time to focus on so entirely. With the critical support and added security of an Economic Injury Disaster Loan that we were able to obtain, we will be able to cover almost 70% of our fixed costs to get us through until early 2021. Stay tuned as we hope there will be more to report soon, as both the macro and the micro of this Great Turning continues to unfold for Aletheia Springs, and for our planet.
(1) For a full and detailed review of all MetaCapital impacts, please ask for a copy of our Aletheia End-of-Year Report from both 2016 & 2017.
(2) “MetaImpact: 10 Capitals” (2018), http://www.metaintegral.net
[ Last Updated: October 2019 | Next Update Expected January 2023 ]
This hummin' little engine is now road-worthy, and we’ve crested into an exciting new chapter where new investment loans can now primarily be focused on refinancing the principal on our $1M owner-carries mortgage. We've launched our 2018 fundraising season with a daylong kick-off event and are now looking for an additional 3-6 new investors as we begin to chunk out our owner-carries mortgage. Our "big hairy audacious goal" this year is that we find a private lender who will take over the majority, if not the entirety, of our $1M owner-carries mortgage. This would be so significantly valuable for the long-term sustainability of our Aletheia project that we would be able to offer an interest rate of between 2-4% with a negotiable term length, and we would also transfer the one and only lien that remains with the property to this new investor as an added security for their investment.
The only other loans we’re leveraging will be for a particular type of Community Member Investor (CMI) that we call a Community Member Trade Investor (CMTI). These are relationships where Aletheia is building out a specific capital improvement or developing significant fixed assets on the land and someone who has the professional skills necessary to do so also wishes to become a CMI. In this way they invest their labor into the project and accrue at least 50% of their professional fees against one or more $25K CMI shares. The value of the land increases while the wealth of professional skills within our Aletheia community also grows.
Currently our architect and general contractor for the Spring House remodel are the only CMTI’s who have joined our project. The Spring House remodel hugely improves a fixed asset of the land and thus adds considerably to our property value while providing the boon of additional community housing and gathering space. So far we have about $5K in CMTI loans from 2018 and expect that to increase to around $60K in 2019. We have no current plans to expand CMTI loans from there, but we are capping these kinds of loans at $100K anyway until we can show good progress in repaying principal on our total outstanding loans.
That being said, the bulk of our loans are simply related to the original purchase of the land. Long-term our plan is to pay back principal from a multitude of directions. First, as CMI’s come onboard in staggered succession, when each term comes to an end that CMI may either choose to re-up for a new term or we’ll have a new incoming CMI take their place, effectively paying them out. With certain few CMI’s there may be a mutual fit and desire to deepen our relationship further. In these cases, their loans could be converted to some form of equity. Conversions of loans into equity may come with additional equity contributions as well, which would help us pay back principal.
Also, significantly, we're now confident that we’ll see the service business’ cash flow continue to steadily increase in the next 2-3 years - especially with the addition of the Thermal Baths, healing arts services, the cafe open every day, as well as additional revenue from possible private retreats over the winter months. We expect some of this overall increase in revenue to be able to pay down principal, however to close any gap we may have we could use our increased cash flow to qualify for a more traditional mortgage, either with a social finance organization like RSF or, if absolutely necessary, a bank.
Our 7-year plan had an original financial viability “backstop” on it articulating how we’d eventually pay off all our debt. We planned to end Phase 1 and begin Phase 2 with a new community housing building phase where Community Members would buy in, offering the influx of capital needed to pay off all loans in full. We’ve been blessed, however, with enough success in these first few years that our backstop plan has now evolved. This relieves pressure on the whole system and offers us a great deal more flexibility, as well as security, in how we will ultimately pay off all liabilities. At the end of this 7-year phase we’re now in, we plan to pay off some loans with increased revenue; we’ll also be finding new CMI’s to swap out with any who may not wish to re-up another 7 years, and finally, we’ll be taking on a few well-vetted CMI’s as equity members, bringing in more capital than with a regular CMI loan.(1)
This update to our strategy also affords us far more spaciousness on several fronts. At the end of this first 7-year phase, we’ll no longer be under the same financial pressure to build-out new housing right away or move too quickly into relationship with equity partners just to pay off the lion’s share of our debt. Also, once we engage in the new building process it will be a multi-year, multi-stakeholder project involving county permitting, neighbors and possibly the valley community as well. Additionally, any new development on the land will greatly alter the context of our new holistic water management plan (as water and development are tightly linked). Thus, its a huge support to have this added spaciousness to fully establish both our revitalized business and watershed restoration work without dealing with new development. Slow and steady does it. (We are in need of new Stewards in the short-term, however, so we’re looking into creating other interim housing with things like tiny houses on the land, adjacent rentals, etc. For more information on our call for Stewards, check out our post here.)
Perhaps the greatest triumph and pressure-relief valve of all is that we’ve now been able to cap the accumulation of new loans coming in that must go solely to pay interest. That means that, beyond the occasional new CMTI who’s adding value to the land, our overall debt pie doesn’t get any bigger from here. Instead, we’ll be working to refinance principal on our $1M owner-carries mortgage. From our business revitalization success and increased revenue so far, we’re now ahead of our earlier conservative estimates. While in the past three years $100K of new loans has indeed gone to cover interest as we’d planned, we’re now on track to have all future interest payments be covered entirely by business revenue, shaving $200K-$275K off our original financing estimate that we planned for to cover interest.
Originally we’d estimated that this first 7 years would cost us between $300K-$375K in interest (depending on how quickly we refinance everything down to 2%), and our plan was to cover most if not all of that through new loans. To calculate the feasibility of this strategy, here’s a summary of our original evaluation study. Since our original purchase price was $2M, adding $300-$375K of interest would put the total sunk cost at between $2.3M - $2.375M. This was still well below the original price of the land in 2015 at $2.5M when it was both in considerable distress and listed as raw land. Additionally, a professional property evaluation from 2004 assessed the undeveloped commercial value of the land at $2.7M. With these figures in mind plus the capital improvements we’ve already made, as well as increasing Sonoma property values, a new evaluation would likely place the current value at somewhere between $2.7M - $3M. Therefore, our basic value proposition and financial strategy still remains solid, feasible and workable.
So what’s next? During Years 3-5 (2018-2020) we’re shifting part of our focus to our nonprofit initiative, Restore The Springs. We’ll be getting deep into the research of a holistic site redesign of our rainwater, pool water effluent, and wastewater management. Once the work of Restore The Springs is firmly established and we’ve begun implementation, we’ll then be ready for our community housing building phase in partnership with the neighbors and the county. We’re now looking to begin planning for this during Years 7-9, or from 2022-2024 (whereas it had originally been slated for Years 4-6 from 2019-2021). During Years 7-9, we’ll also plan to begin the work researching what type of legal entities we may restructure as for Phase 2, as well as how equity sharing might work.
We will then have a community of residential Stewards and nonresidential Community Members alike caring for the revitalized ecology of this land and springs, all supported by a financially abundant, regenerative service offering. This abundant income will in turn help us fulfill our vision of developing water, food and energy resilience, as well as support our cultural research into creative process, trust-building and self-organizing community systems. When this comes to pass, we will be well on our way to becoming one of many healing biotopes, engaged in the work of cultural transformation and the healing of our planet.
(1) An important note here is that equity investment and residency are not equivalent in our Aletheia system. Indeed, these are distinctly separate and important roles within the structure of our community. This is different from many land-based community projects where equity confers the right to full-time residency. Instead, we expect there will be some Community Members with equity who don’t live on the land and there will be some Community Stewards who live on the land with a vital role to play here but without commensurate equity. Our commitment is that Stewardship residency be financially accessible to those who are meant to live here and care for the Springs.
Our efforts during our first 7-year process, “Phase 1” are focused in three main areas, with a fourth area marking the beginning of our second 7-year arc, or “Phase 2.” While each area is a multi-year thread, we’ll concentrate on specific focus areas during target years, as shown below. While these target years have some overlap, the focus areas are ordered in such a way as to build upon each other synergistically as follows:
FOCUS TARGET YEARS
Focus 1: Fundraising 2016 - 2020
Focus 2: Revitalizing our Service Offerings 2016 - 2020
Focus 3: Restoring the Springs & Ecology 2018 - 2022
Focus 4: Building Community Housing 2022 – 2024
Focus 1: Fundraising
Fundraising makes this project possible by reducing the impact of our interest-bearing debt, allowing us to channel more resources into our early revitalization efforts. It also frames the process to refinance our purchase debt within a clear, 7-year timeframe.
Focus 2: Revitalizing our Service Offerings
Revitalizing Morton’s Warm Springs grows our ability to be financially self-sufficient while providing the means for Stewards to care for the springs year-round and includes viable interim housing solutions. Also, our revitalization efforts will establish clear intentions and foster trust with visitors and neighbors, building key social capital.
Focus 3: Restoring the Springs & Ecology
Restoring the springs’ ecology, with special attention to water cycles and human activities, moves us toward becoming a healthy, resilient biotope. This begins fulfilling our mission to support the health and wellbeing of all beings who share a belonging with this land. It also establishes our commitment to positive, mutually supportive relationship with both neighbor and county stakeholders who will play key roles in our later building phase.
Focus 4: Building Community Housing
Beginning the process to develop long-term housing will mark the threshold of Phase 2 (the next 7 years from 2023 to 2030). New housing will allow a sufficient number of resident-Stewards to live comfortably year-round and caretake the springs. By receiving the gifts of support that living in the onsite community will bring, the resident-Stewards will have an abundance of life force to be of service in many healing and creative ways.
Future Residential Community Housing Vision
Sometime during our second 7-year phase we plan to begin the work of either building or acquiring additional community residences. Our longest-arc aim holds that, eventually, all residential community housing would be either directly adjacent to the main Springs property, or within a very short walking distance. We envision that, in this future, some housing would always remain on the property so there can be direct and immediate care, oversight and guardianship for the land, springs and facilities, however we see this being limited and that the majority of the residential community will be situated in a combination of both private and shared homes on neighboring parcels.
This vision emerges from two main and unwavering understandings–the first being that of the existing site constraints of the land. Current Sonoma County code for various uses on any property produces what we might call a "use budget." We will need to save the lion's share of our onsite "use budget" (especially in the future) to center the uses of all our guest season visitors and hopeful overnight retreatants. Our budget is physically constrained by the size of our land, the available zones for adequate septic percolation, legal setbacks, etc. The only way this budget will ever change for the better (and, thereby, allow additional uses) is either via the development of a new, large-scale municipal sewer system incorporating upper Warm Springs canyon, or via changes in county land use codes allowing for things like residential and commercially permitted waterless composting toilets. For the sake of the land and the waters that we daily use and are in deep relation with we hope to see these changes in our lifetimes, however we cannot base our plans on this needing to come to pass.
The second unwavering awareness which informs our vision of developing immediately offsite, adjacent community residences is the fact that the original stewards of these lands–the Southern Pomo, Wappo and Coast Miwok peoples–also lived in this way in relation to the sacredness of geothermal springs. We are grateful to have received this story now from more than one First Nations person that, to live directly upon the location of the springs, is not an easy thing to do, as it is like living atop a powerfully and ceaselessly upwelling medicine energy which brings things to the surface to be healed, shifted, transformed, acknowledged or honored. It could also be understood as being akin to living at a hospital or at a temple. These are sacred places that we are in relation with, that we tend, where we celebrate, engage in ceremony, 'recreate' together, come for healing or insight, but it is ill-advised to make our permanent personal homes directly in the middle of a sacred commons. Places like this are best served with a bit of breathing room–space for all to come and be with the direct medicine of the place. We take this dimension of the historical relationship with the land and springs very seriously, and, in our direct experiences these past many years where, out of necessity, we've needed to live directly on the land, we've found this to be actually quite true–somatically, spiritually and energetically.
Thus, while we've asked for the blessings of the land and water to temporarily house us for this necessary stretch of time, our number one objective for increasing our capacity for residential housing (and thereby the sustainability and carrying capacity of our project) is to secure already-built residential units which are either directly adjacent or in the immediate vicinity to the Aletheia Springs property. That said, we do also have long-term visions for building out a select number of functionally specific structures upon the land itself. These could be used, at first, as homes for the residential community, but later converted over to overnight and guest uses (much in the same way that we rebuilt the Springhouse over the pools).
If we are able to develop new structures, this would primarily happen on the larger, 17+ acre back parcel. One such structure will likely be sited on the open slope of the hillside behind the meadow in a way that blends in and complements with the surrounding terrain. We envision this structure could consist of four semidetached private ensuite pods with personal kitchenettes, connected together by breezeways and shared common spaces (main group kitchen, larger group room, etc.).
The other such structure will likely be sited within the footprint of the existing 2,300 ft2 Aletheia Community Barn, with views overlooking the large meadow and Sonoma Creek below. We imagine this large, two-story "main sanctuary" building might consist of between 5-10 rooms sized between 150-500 ft2. Most would be downstairs and would share access to several common spaces, including a large, ground floor commercial kitchen, group room/living room, shared bathrooms as well as a multi-purpose/workshop space and office/library. Upstairs would primarily consist of a very large main sanctuary for large indoor group gatherings featuring spectacular second-story, floor-to-ceiling windowed views overlooking the whole of the back meadow and hills beyond.
The total 'bedroom' count between these two structures will be based on the septic capacity on the land and future codes, as mentioned above. However, after redesigning how graywater and wastewater are managed property-wide and with promising new initiatives for composting toilets currently being pioneered within Sonoma County, there is a chance that, by the time we embark on this development journey, our existing septic picture could shift for the better. Our hope is that this may not only increase our "use budget" but also support a much more ecologically sound solution to wastewater management on the land.
Lastly, developing a limited number of residences designated specifically for year-round Steward housing is in keeping with retaining our commercial zoning. Future Steward residents may or may not buy into shared 'ownership' of these residences in some way, as this highly depends upon our collectives' choices around legacy planning such that we may best recoup our investors' sunk costs, but far beyond that, how we may best protect the Springs' legacy, accessibility, and noncommodification far beyond our lifetimes. Also its important to note here is that equity investment and residency are not equivalent in our Aletheia system. Indeed, these are distinctly separate and important roles within the structure of our community. This is different from many land-based community projects where equity confers the right to full-time residency. Instead, we expect there will be some Community Members with equity who don’t live on the land and there will be some Stewards who live on the land with a vital role to play here but without commensurate equity. Our commitment is that Stewardship residency be financially accessible to all those who are meant to live here and care for these sacred Springs.
Current Tandem Legal Structure
Here is a primer on how our legal structures are currently organized. We are also investigating other ways we might restructure our organization in the near future (e.g. as a nonprofit) in order to reduce our tax liability and better align with our service mission. Until we reorganize, Aletheia Springs currently has its legal existence as a collection of four distinct entities:
WELL WITHIN, LLC
The Land-Holding Entity
Our land holding entity was created to purchase and hold title on the land. That entity, called Well Within, LLC, is a Limited Liability Company (LLC) so as to protect the liability of the land owners. The individual investors who initially purchased the land together are listed as owner-members of Well Within, LLC, with their ownership commensurate to investment. The title of the property shows Well Within, LLC as the deed-holder. The acquisition and holding of the land under Well Within, LLC is separate from the operation of any current or future business operations on the land. Well Within, LLC also holds all of the mortgage debt from the original land purchase and makes all interest payments on this debt.
SONOMA SPRINGS, LLC
The Public Utility Water Company | dba: Sonoma Springs Water Company
The public water utility company, called Sonoma Springs, LLC, operates as a single-member subsidiary of Well Within, LLC. Operation of the water utility is authorized by the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and requires a State Certified Water Treatment & Distribution Operator to take regular water samples and file water quality reports to the SWRCB. Sonoma Springs, LLC reads the meters quarterly and sends out bills to its twenty-one neighborcustomers. It also prepares annual and consumer confidence reports for both its water customers and the CPUC and SWRCB.
MORTON’S WARM SPRINGS, LLC
The Service Offering Entity | dba: Morton’s Warm Springs
A separately owned entity, called Morton’s Warm Springs, LLC, was established prior to the opening of our first season on May 1, 2016. The Morton’s entity leases the land from Well Within, LLC and operates from May-September each year. Only two, low-investment managing members of Well Within, LLC are also members of Morton’s Warm Springs, LLC which helps insulate the property owners (and eventually the future steward-residents) from the liability of daily operations at Morton’s. In return, the Morton’s Warm Springs, LLC entity pays for all expenses of the land, including property insurance, liability insurance, and property taxes.
RESTORE THE SPRINGS
The Nonprofit Initiative | Working under: Inquiring Systems, Inc.
Restore The Springs is a nonprofit project launched in 2018 as a fiscally-sponsored initiative under Inquiring Systems, Inc. Its mission is to restore and regenerate the ecology and culture of the Springs, centering the restoration of a more full, natural water cycle that increases the health of Sonoma Creek watershed in service to the regenerative global water cycle on this planet. Another aspect of Restore The Springs is our dedication to preserving access to the geothermal springs that have shaped the culture of the land as well as the historic Sonoma Valley. It is our mission to preserve the purity of this experience and honor the healing capacity of the the waters that has been offered to countless generations before us. Restore The Springs also serves as a placeholder for a future nonprofit that the Morton's business will eventually be dissolved into once we know which type of nonprofit entity best aligns with our service mission (educational, ecological, spiritual, etc.).
How You Can Participate
There’s so many ways to participate in this learning adventure with us. A meaningful first step is always just to reach out and introduce yourself–share what resonates and a bit about yourself. Join our Friends of Aletheia list to follow along with our progress, and to hear about occasional happenings and volunteer opportunities. Perhaps later you'll be drawn to experience Aletheia via our residency program. Or perhaps you're the one who beneficially alters someone else’s life by connecting them to this project. Either way, we invite you to feel into any part you may have to play in weaving this fabric with us– be it with time, skills, money, love, co-visioning or simply a witnessing listening presence.