Bucking the Trend

Additionally, Townsend notes that kids are much bigger part of the decision-making process. It used to be parents would pick the camp and send the child. These days, the parents’ role is to narrow the field (often in conjunction with their child), then the final choice is made by the child.

“We have to be careful that our traditional image doesn’t come off to the kids as boring. If we don’t showcase how fun traditional camp is, they’re not going to know, and will pick the MTV production video from the camp down the road. It’s a trend that forces us to look more closely at our video and Web site presentations,” says Townsend. “My feeling is that as an industry we have allowed ourselves to become marginalized, and that’s why we all suffer when there’s a little bit of a downturn or families turn a different way and want academics, for instance. We haven’t forced ourselves out there to say, ‘Your child will be a better athlete, student and citizen because of the traditional camp experience that teaches them how to grow up into a productive person.’ In order to reverse that trend is need to combine our resources and get the message out there. How we do that is yet to be seen.”

Land Rush

Camps usually live the “location, location, location” maxim of the real estate business. But like the infamous family farm, many camps are finding themselves squeezed by encroachment on many fronts. This pressure leads some to sell and subdivide. However, this is an asset that can and should be saved, according to Gary Forster, camping specialist for the YMCA.

“In 1960 we had more than 600 YMCA overnight camps. Now we have 245, but we actually serve more kids than we did then. There are economic and quality reasons that big tends to be more successful. But just as people ought to be fighting for small family farms the market drives toward larger models. Small camps ought to band together and find ways they can create the efficiencies and qualities that more naturally come to the larger camps,” says Forster. “Retiring camp owners find out that their beautiful camp is more valuable as a housing development than it is as a camp, and the same thing is happening for non-profits. The value of the property is so high, some struggling organizations just can’t ignore the price offered for development.”

Besides banding together to pool resources and create efficiencies, there are a number of other creative avenues to keep the land, and realize a dividend that will help fill beds. As Forster points out, camps have some of the best undeveloped land in North America.

“The creative solutions — beyond seeking lower tax rates through wilderness, undeveloped or recreation assessment classifications — are beginning to show themselves, such as selling development rights. We have a wonderful camp in Washington, Mass. — Camp HighRock — serving YMCA’s in Connecticut that sold their 1,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy, the state of Massachusetts and the National Park Service. In return they get a 99-year lease for a dollar to operate the core 300 acres where the camp is located. They can continue to develop and use the camp, but no one will be able to sell it for development later. They get money right now to put into an endowment to do critical things to protect the site,” says Forster. “The coolest thing is that it can never be sold off and used for anything but a camp. Different states do it in different ways. In Connecticut, for example, the state might buy the development rights in return for an easement that says it can never be used for development.”

Forster points out that there are many organizations interested in protecting open space. When land is developed for housing it creates a painfully large burden on local government that the taxes don’t fully support.

“The camp needs to be the one to gather and orchestrate all of those interested parties at the table — municipalities, the state, the local land conservancy, and other groups interested in protecting open space. Each one has a pot of money it can go to, but it’s usually not enough, and most of them get more when they can show they’re working with other organizations. The property we chose for our camps is in huge demand, and the upside is that there are people willing to help to keep it that way,” says Forster.

Barring this approach, Forster says individual donations are becoming a more realistic and potentially groundbreaking avenue of improving camp facilities, grounds and programs. Though the Baby Boomers may take our Social Security with them, they’re also filling philanthropic coffers, and camps have a compelling story to tell them.

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