St. Louis County to fix up, sell Camp EsquagamaSt. Louis County’s summer camp had a tough year in 2011, with attendance down nearly 20 percent, but county commissioners vowed Tuesday to keep the camp open for 2012 and beyond.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
St. Louis County’s summer camp had a tough year in 2011, with attendance down nearly 20 percent, but county commissioners vowed Tuesday to keep the camp open for 2012 and beyond.
Commissioners, meeting in a workshop in Proctor, directed county administrators to take the necessary steps to keep Camp Esquagama open next summer, repair and upgrade buildings and to market the camp as soon as possible to draw more campers.
The county spends about $55,000 annually subsidizing camp operations but contributes thousands more each year in capital improvements.
The long-term goal, commissioners agreed, is to get the camp in shape to sell or lease it to a nonprofit group or company to keep operations open but get county taxpayers out of the summer camp business.
“No one supports closing this camp. I don’t think that’s an option at all,” said Commissioner Peg Sweeney of Proctor. But “at some point, a more permanent decision needs to be made. We can’t go year to year.”
Roy Connaughton, a consultant hired by the county to analyze the camp’s needs and plot viable options, said attendance was down because the camp wasn’t marketed until late spring and summer, when many families already had made decisions about their summer plans. Commissioners also noted that the lingering recession has cut into families’ discretionary income for things like summer camp.
The camp, just south of Biwabik, or about an hour north of Duluth, has seen declining enrollment for a decade but has averaged about 350 campers over the past few years, Connaughton said. That number hit 335 in 2010 but fell to 270 this year.
Summer camps across the region are facing similar situations, he noted.
“The world of camping has changed” over the past 10 years, he said. “The days of ‘Kumbaya’ and s’mores is gone” as parents want more definitive physical and leadership skills taught at camp.
But it might have been rumors that the camp’s future was in jeopardy that cost the camp the most this year.
“For whatever reason, the community thought the camp was closed, and that really hurt,” Connaughton told commissioners. Many people mistakenly thought the camp’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2010 was a goodbye party, Connaughton added. The confusion mounted when Walt and Linda Hautala retired last year after 38 years of running the camp.
Connaughton’s recommendation to the County Board on Tuesday was to make necessary improvements to the camp — potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in safety and maintenance upgrades — while keeping it running and improving attendance before selling or leasing the camp to an outside entity.
“I think I have fairly clear direction now that’s where we’re headed,” said Kevin Gray, county administrator. “Considering how late we got into the game this year, promoting the camp, I think it turned out pretty well even with fewer campers.”
The county is expected to contract with Connaughton again for 2012, or with another third party, to manage and promote the camp to attract more children and to promote special events for groups, weddings, corporate retreats and other mostly untapped markets.
“Make no mistake, this is a business, even if it is run by a nonprofit, and the goal is to at least break even,” Connaughton said.
Having 65 fewer campers in 2011 cost the camp $30,000 in lost revenue compared to 2010, but cost-cutting measures installed by Connaughton cut the overall operating loss for this year to $11,000.
This year “had better be the low point, or you will not have my support in two years if it is still trending downward,” said Commissioner Keith Nelson of Eveleth, one of the camp’s strongest supporters.