Mountain Scene’s Philip Chandler visits American philanthropists Debbi and Paul Brainerd at their Washington State home, five years after he unveiled their plans to turn Glenorchy’s run-down holiday park into a new ‘green’ campground that would return all its profits to the community
Take the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island and you can end up visiting an amazing 100-hectare environmental educational ‘campus’.
Debbi and Paul Brainerd, who live nearby, bought and gifted the forested land for IslandWood, which hosts thousands of kids on four-day eco-retreats.
Prior to that, Debbi spent six months talking to educators around Washington State on what they wanted to see.
She also helped the community raise $US32 million to build it.
This was 20-plus years ago, not long after the couple, who’d both been married before, met in a lift in downtown Seattle.
Paul had specialised in environmental philanthropy since making a fortune selling his revolutionary desktop publishing company to Adobe in 1994.
“I took a third of the proceeds of the sale of the company and put it into the Brainerd Foundation, which has been making grants over the last 20 years to hundreds of organisations across the region.”
Asked why the foundation’s had an environmental emphasis, Paul says it stems from his earliest memories of holidays in Oregon, where his family had a cabin in the national forest.
“My first steps were at that cabin when I was just 18 months old, so I really grew up in the outdoors.”
When Paul still had his software company, he’d meet a distributor in Auckland each year who’d recommend places in New Zealand to explore, one of which was Queenstown.
After meeting Debbi, their first trip was to NZ, to tramp the Routeburn and Hollyford.
“Coming back one day from a hike on the Routeburn, we stopped and fell in love with the beautiful views.”
They ended up buying a section at Glenorchy’s Wyuna Preserve and building a holiday home.
On one visit, Debbi found the dilapidated Glenorchy Holiday Park was for sale.
“She came home one day and said, ‘we should buy this and fix it up’,” Paul says.
Debbi: “He trusted me because he had seen how IslandWood had turned out, and he thought, ‘well, ok, if she can do that here, then maybe she can do that down there’.”
Similar to IslandWood, the Brainerds consulted extensively with the community.
They decided to build cutting-edge visitor accommodation with net-zero energy and extensive recycling, with more than 300 people involved in the project.
Again, the couple took different roles – Debbi designing Camp Glenorchy while Paul looked after its sustainable technology.
And, as with IslandWood, they’ve handed over the land and buildings while starting a trust that will give the business’ proceeds to the local community.
Accepting the business might take at least three years to turn a profit, they’re meantime giving the trust $10,000 a year.
Though set up as visitor accommodation, the couple are proud that already about 3000 people have toured the facility.
Debbi: “Everyone takes something different away – the scientist, the engineer, the artist, the home builder.”
They won’t divulge the build cost, “mostly because it was a gift and we wanted to create a state-of-the-art model to show what is possible for sustainable design”.
Asked about NZ’s ban on foreigners buying residential property, introduced last October, Paul says Camp Glenorchy wouldn’t have happened as they’d not have been allowed to secure their Wyuna pad first.
“We wouldn’t have been there, we wouldn’t have seen the [‘for sale’] sign.”
Paul says the policy’s inconsistent with NZ’s need to bring in highly-skilled immigrants.
“They can immigrate, perhaps, but they can’t buy a home – that makes no sense whatsoever.”
Meantime, as Paul flagged in 2008, the Brainerd Foundation’s being wound up next year after almost 25 years. “The foundation made the decision to spend out the endowment because they believe our dollars can have a greater impact in the near-term,” Debbi says.