ALBANY -- The options for officials with the national Quail Unlimited conservation organization were simple: Dig in and try to turn the struggling group around or just call it a day and walk away.
That a select collection of leaders dedicated to the principles of Quail Unlimited took the former option is a testament to the passion they have for the world's oldest national conservation group.
The twin whammy of a nationwide economic recession and questionable financial practices within QU led to the ouster of longtime president and organization co-founder Rocky Evans and left the 28-year-old conservation group's future in limbo. Staff at QU's Edgefield, S.C., national offices were furloughed for a two-week period while a small group of Quail Unlimited's board of directors fought to revive the deeply troubled organization.
The events that led to Evans stepping down from his position as QU president and eventually brought Albany's Bill Bowles to the top spot in the organization reads like a bad soap opera that threatened the very existence of a group that has raised tens of millions of dollars over the years to preserve the habitat and the dwindling population of the nation's No. 1 game bird.
"We can't blame any one person for the troubles we've gone through," Quail Unlimited Board Chairman Cameron M. Harris, a Charlotte, N.C., businessman, said. "When (the board) finally got involved, we didn't have any idea of how bad things really were."
Bowles, an Albany native who is the managing partner of the Quail Country Plantation in Arlington, was asked to look into the accounting practices of Quail Unlimited when the rumblings of problems began to surface. A member of the conservation group's 20-person national board, Bowles drove to the organization's Edgefield offices to investigate.
"After I got there, I soon realized they were not using two software accounting programs to do their paperwork, but they were actually using three," he said. "Now, I want to make it really clear that I found no evidence of fraud going on, which was rumored at the time. It was more a need to merge their software to help incorporate better accounting practices."
Further investigation into Quail Unlimited's accounting practices showed that a number of the organization's chapters across the country were owed money by the national organization. Lots of money.
"We didn't have a little problem," Bowles said. "We had a big problem ... a more than six-figure problem."
QU developed a formula whereby its chapters kept 60 percent of money collected at fundraisers like annual banquets (6 percent of which was kept by a state counsel that served as a connection to the national board), while 40 percent went to the national offices for operation costs. But 100 percent of the money collected first went to the national office before being split and sent back to the chapters.
"Some wrong decisions were made to use the money that was sent to the national office for operations," Bowles said. "The money was not making its way back to the chapters in a timely manner. By the time the board found out, the national office was struggling to survive.
"The board didn't realize how deep the hole was, and the stress really took its toll on Rocky. It became absolutely too much for him to handle."
So Evans, over the course of a two-hour, 10-minute conference call to the board, thanked everyone for what they'd done and then resigned.
"There was an element of the board that didn't agree with the way Rocky was paying debts and conducting business, and he lost the support of that group," Harris said.
When Evans stepped down, the board decided to name QU Director of Marketing Craig Alderman of Missouri as its interim president. But the organization's situation did not improve under his leadership. In fact, Harris said, "The organization was decimated by (Alderman)."
After seven months, the board met and decided to ask Alderman to return to his marketing position. But he did not want to give up the president's post.
"The board was forced to make a decision in regards to Mr. Alderman," Bowles said. "He was terminated."
A short while later the board discovered Quail Unlimited did not have enough money on hand to make its payroll.
"There was talk of shaking hands all around and saying 'We're out of here'," Bowles said. "But there was a group that was not willing to give up without a fight."
So QU furloughed its employees for a two-week period, and its board members started looking for help.
"Sometimes it takes a situation like this to show you what folks are made of," Bowles said. "There were (QU) chapters out there with money in their treasuries, and they reached out and said 'Do you need money to make payroll?' And some of these chapters were ones that were owed money by the national office.
"Some of the board members and supporters of Quail Unlimited stepped up and wrote a few checks so that we could take care of our expenses."
Which ultimately led to the question of where the group would go from that point. One of its first orders of business was to demand that Bowles take over as interim president, an offer he accepted after discussing it with his family and his partner at Quail Country.
Bowles assumed the presidency one week ago, and one of his first orders of business was to address the QU Celebrity Quail Hunt held each January for the past 22 years on plantations around the Albany area. Rumors of the organization's supposed demise had reached hunt organizers, and an air of uncertainty hung over the event.
"The Celebrity Quail Hunt is the organization's No. 1 fundraiser, and that makes it vital," Bowles said. "But as someone who was born and raised in Albany, I also know how much it means to the community. I knew we had to do everything we could to make the hunt as good as it ever was."
When word filtered out about QU's problems, some of the celebrity hunt's regular participants started wighing in.
"Steve Kanaly, who with his wife Brent has been a participant in the hunt year after year after year, called and asked if everything was OK," Bowles said of the actor best known for his role on the long-running TV series Dallas. "We told him what we were going through, and he said not only was he going to be here, he was going to pay his own way this time. He said it was time for him to give back for the enjoyment he's gotten out of the hunt over the years.
"We've always paid for airline tickets and hotel accommodations for our celebrities, and now a lot of them are calling to tell us they'll be here and none of them are asking for plane tickets. Country singer Darryl Singletary is coming and Bob Whitaker, the retired general manager of the Grand Ole Opry, is coming and bringing some of the Opry legends."
Local hotel owners and managers have gotten behind the local effort and are offering discounted rates for rooms, and with the loss of transportation sponsor Chevrolet, local civic organizations are pitching in to help.
"I'm going to promise one thing," Bowles said. "Everything about the hunt this year will be as first-quality as it's always been. And I ain't so sure it won't be even better."
That's good news for local leaders who say the benefits of the Celebrity Quail Hunt go beyond the tens of thousands of dollars the event brings to the area every year.
"I think Quail Unlimited is going to emerge from this situation stronger than ever," Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said. "They'll put on a great quail hunt, which is a very important element of tourism in our area.
"But people need to realize there are potential residual effects of the hunt as well. Business people from all over the country come to this event that might not otherwise visit our region. If a CEO of a business or a decision-maker with access to a CEO visits and has a good impression, that could pay off if that business decides to expand. It's not too big a stretch to think we could get a plant in our region."
The 2010 Celebrity Quail Hunt will be held Jan. 28-30 at plantations throughout the region. As an added feature, Quail Unlimited's board and officials with chapters throughout the country will be invited to attend business meetings and a private hunt Jan. 26-27.
A landowners appreciation reception will be held at Stonebridge Country Club on Jan. 28, while post-hunt events on Jan. 29 and 30 -- Winchester and Anheiser Busch nights, respectively -- will be held at Darton College.
"This event is special to Albany; it opens our region up to the whole world," Bowles said. "We can't turn our back on that. The time has come for our organization to heal. Our national and chapter leaders need to sit down face-to-face and come up with a way for us to stand on our feet again."