Reed Hastings, the billionaire founder of Netflix, is quietly building a mysterious 2,100-acre luxury retreat ranch nestled in the elk-filled foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Recode has learned.
Hastings has been one of the country’s biggest donors to the education reform movement that’s trying to reshape America’s struggling school system. And now public records reveal that Hastings is personally financing a new foundation that will operate this training ground for American public school teachers, a passion project shrouded in secrecy that will expand the billionaire’s political influence.
Hastings is one of many Silicon Valley billionaires who have deployed their fortunes in the education reform movement, which calls for a greater focus on testing, tougher accountability for teachers, and the expansion of alternative schools like charters to close America’s achievement gaps and better train its future workforce. Those tech leaders, though, have had uncertain results, with the very biggest of them — Microsoft founder Bill Gates — having admitted earlier this year that he was “not yet seeing the kind of bottom-line impact we expected.” Opponents, including teachers’ unions, charge that these reformers are blaming educators for factors beyond their control, such as poverty.
The new training center, called the Retreat Land at Lone Rock, seems to be a priority for the Netflix CEO, at least based on Hastings’s level of personal involvement: He and his wife have been visiting the area since at least 2017, when they went so far as to request a face-to-face meeting with a local fire chief at his Colorado firehouse to try and smooth over any looming permitting concerns.
Hastings, whose involvement hasn’t previously been reported, declined to comment on his plans through a spokesperson.
But public records filed with the government of Park County, Colorado, and reviewed by Recode offer a glimpse at the ambitious plans for the center, which local officials expect to open as early as March 2021.
“The proposed Conference and Retreat Facility will be run as a nonprofit institute serving the public education community’s development of teachers and leadership,” a Hastings aide says in one prospectus.
One group that is expected to use the “state-of-the-art” facility is the Pahara Institute, which operates a well-known networking group and training program for activists and teachers aligned with the education-reform movement. Hastings heavily funds and serves on the board of the Pahara Institute, which currently hosts its retreats at different locations around the country rather than at a single place.
It was Pahara that initially contacted local landowners to buy the acreage before Hastings personally stepped in and decided to do it himself, said Dave Crane, a real estate broker who did the deal and gave a tour of the property to Hastings before the firehouse meeting in 2017. Pahara’s founder serves on the board of Hastings’s new foundation as well.
Retreat Land at Lone Rock will effectively function as the grounds for leadership retreats like these for teachers, principals, and nonprofit heads, according to a person close to Hastings. It will be open to both educators at traditional district public schools and those at charter schools, a favorite cause of the Netflix founder, the person said.
The center will nevertheless extend Hastings’s influence in the American education system. Although it remains unknown whether the leaders that are brought to Lone Rock will be the key people to fix America’s schools, Hastings, a private citizen, will now have the ability to choose a few leaders who agree with him and support them with his bank account and his center, giving him an outsized voice in one of America’s most fraught public policy debates.
Overlapping groups of about 30 educators at a time from across the United States are expected to enjoy the 270-room retreat center at once, staying for four days each and playing team sports, using its classrooms, and enjoying its pristine hiking trails — “maybe with pack llamas,” says another document.
The center, with an architecture inspired by Colorado’s ranching history, will eventually feature three separate “villages” that include meeting rooms, a spa with saunas and hot tubs, man-made hot springs, and a lodge with a wine cellar and yoga deck, according to mock-ups filed with the county government. Trails through a forest of aspen trees surround the property. A helipad was initially slated to be built, too, but the idea was killed due to community backlash during the extensive permitting process in 2018 because it would disrupt the more than 70 elk that call the area home.
That speaks to how not everyone has been thrilled about the arrival of construction crews to build a ritzy retreat in the rural, close-knit town of Bailey, a modest bedroom community about an hour southwest of Denver. It is one of the largest construction projects in the history of Park County, which is where the animated show South Park is fictionally set.
“The reaction to this was primarily negative,” recalled John Deagan, who oversaw the permitting process. “Some people just want to stop developments. That’s what the attitude was with this one.”
As is true with some billionaire philanthropy, this is all happening with minimal transparency, too. Park County residents have, until now, been totally in the dark about who exactly was financing the massive development, fueling conspiracy theories about where the money was coming from. Activists even voiced theories like these in government meetings.
“There’s a lot of confusion — Bailey being a small community as it is. A lot of times the local community dreams up what things are and what they’re going to be and who’s doing it and why,” said Joe Burgett, the local fire official who met with Hastings a few years ago. “Bailey’s not unlike other small towns. Sometimes stories grow legs and maybe start moving without a whole lot of fact-checking.”
Hastings has been able to keep his involvement largely under wraps thanks to strict confidentiality agreements. The effort has been covertly led by Amy Dee, a former Netflix real estate executive, who told Recode when reached that she was under a nondisclosure agreement and could not answer questions. Even some local government officials told Recode they didn’t know about Hastings’s involvement.
Hastings seems to have spent more than $20 million on the project. Working through an LLC, Dee spent about $12 million, according to county records, to buy the thousands of acres from Colorado ranch owners. And then an unidentified person put another $9 million into a little-known new charity called the Lone Rock Foundation last year, according to the grant disclosure database of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which has managed some of Hastings’s charitable money.
While the database does not explicitly identify Hastings himself as behind that gift, he is the president of the Lone Rock Foundation, according to its sparse federal tax filings. Dee identifies as its CEO.
Lone Rock is the latest twist in Hastings’s decades-long attempt to figure out how exactly he wants to spend his now-$5 billion of net worth to improve American schools.
After beginning his career as a ninth-grade math teacher, Hasting has become among the most prolific backers of education reform more broadly and of charter schools specifically.
“I had a bunch of money, and I didn’t really want to buy yachts,” Hastings recalled in one interview. “I started looking at education, trying to figure out why our education is lagging when our technology is increasing at great rates and there’s great innovation in so many other areas — health care, biotech, information technology, moviemaking. Why not education?”
So in 1998, Hastings funded and personally gathered petitions in supermarkets to help pass an initiative to overturn California’s cap on charter schools. He was eventually appointed to California’s state Board of Education but had to resign a few years later after he angered bilingual education activists by pushing for more instruction in English.
Four years ago, Hastings made news when he announced that he was standing up a $100 million charitable vehicle, the Hastings Fund, to back education groups like the United Negro College Fund. But then in 2018, only two years in, he had effectively folded that organization in order to pool his millions with another billionaire, hedge funder John Arnold, into a new $200 million education philanthropy called The City Fund. (A few months after that, Hastings would incorporate Lone Rock.)
The City Fund since then has emerged as one of the very biggest funders of the education reform movement, spending more than $110 million of its billionaires’ money to advance charter schools around the country. Hastings and Arnold also put another $15 million into an allied political group to back charter-friendly candidates running for school board.
All of that money makes what Hastings is building in Colorado seem relatively small. But here in this picturesque town, people like Hastings just don’t come around too often.
“I don’t deal with a lot of billionaires,” said Crane.