Kids Or Corporations

By Sandy Bliesener

Summer youth camps are all about the kids, right? Creating friendships, building confidence, learning and improving skills are the ideals that nature-based resident camps foster. And many do it incredibly well in the most marginal of facilities that have been renovated and repurposed on shoestring budgets for decades.

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Much of this challenge exists because non-profit youth organizations want to offer the summer-camp experience to economically diverse populations within their communities. Therefore, camper fees are kept as low as possible, and many camperships are subsidized. It is difficult to generate adequate revenue to cover costs under these circumstances, and facility maintenance is often what falls by the wayside when budgets are tight.

Many non-profit youth organizations are faced with this dilemma in developing a facility master plan for their resident camp property. The goal is to provide high-quality programs for the kids, but the facilities are often inadequate and maintenance-intensive.

Many camps have considered boosting their non-summer use by building facilities that can accommodate year-round rentals by higher-paying clientele. The idea of money pouring in from corporate groups holding mid-week conferences, with a steady stream of weddings on weekends, is enticing. Adding large buildings at camp to bring in the money needed for deferred maintenance on aging facilities may seem like the best way.

But keep in mind that often the summer-camp programs that kids love most are run in open lawn areas, under a tent, or in a clearing in the woods with log seating. Adding a barrier-free, target range shelter from which campers can be out of the sun or rain; a small garage with a roll-up door that can be used as a pottery or woodworking shop; or a shelter built on stilts off a hillside so it feels like a treehouse, can only make the programs better. These simple, inexpensive, easy-to-maintain facilities can add incredible depth and quality to the activities that have been helping kids learn and improve skills, create friendships, and build confidence at summer camp for generations.

Modest program-support facilities can be designed whimsically, such as a paintball range target that looks like an old western town, or a deck built around a large tree, to enhance the camp character and campers’ experience. These facilities  can be easily disassembled or moved if future programming needs a change.

And most importantly, they can often be designed to fit within the cost parameters of interested donors. Funding a $5,000 deck that can be built before summer camp begins is much easier to sell than a $5-million conference facility that requires two years or more of design and construction.

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But if the $5-million conference facility is the direction supported by the camp board and administration, here are a few things to think about before getting too far into the master-planning process:

1) Have competing conferences or wedding venues been assessed to see if a demand for additional facilities exist, and if so, how far are groups willing to travel for an event?

2) The quality standards of corporations—and brides—are often quite high, so what level of quality can realistically be maintained?

  • Easy vehicular access, close parking, and barrier-free pedestrian walks are critically important to attract groups and have them come back and recommend the facility to others.
  • Cleanliness and a high level of service are expectations of this clientele.
  • Availability of the facilities during summer can be a great attraction to rural-camp settings. Being able to use the lake and challenge course might be the primary reason to choose a camp’s conference facility, but how does that fit in with the summer youth-camp programs?

3) How will rental-group facilities be used during summer camp?

  • Will they be flexible and sturdy enough for camp, or will they sit empty all summer because they are too nice for the kids to use?
  • If rental-group facilities are intended to serve only outside groups, can they be located so separation from campers is maintained?

Many youth camps throughout the country have successfully developed multi-use facilities that work for both summer-camp and outside-rental groups. However, their success is typically based on having popular programs that have outgrown the existing camp facilities and having to turn away consistently profitable, returning rental groups. Rarely have they achieved their success by constructing new buildings in the hope that they would attract new business, particularly if the summer-camp sessions are not running at full capacity.

But if the demand for conference or wedding facilities is warranted, here is a final word of caution regarding the long-term costs associated with operating and staffing them.

  • Keeping year-round buildings heated and cooled is an expense that many seasonal summer camps do not anticipate, especially if they are multi-purpose gyms or dining halls with commercial kitchens.
  • Having staff available to cook, clean, and launder linens for overnight guests will be necessary, and there is no expectation that program staff that has a day or two off between rental groups will spend it changing sheets and cleaning bathrooms.
  • Maintaining a new facility at a conference or wedding level of quality will be challenging to a staff of three or four that is already trying to keep up with maintenance of 20 or more camp buildings.

These long-term costs are often not considered, resulting in already limited resources being pulled from summer-camp facilities and programs to support the new expenses.

So, if summer youth camp is all about the kids—creating friendships, building confidence, learning and improving skills—careful consideration must be given to where the facility development focus should be. Ask yourself and your team the following:

  • Can buildings intended to serve rental groups to generate alternative revenue streams also be used by campers?
  • Is there demand by existing and potential rental groups for the type of facility that can be affordably and sustainably built, programmed, and maintained?
  • Which will bring about more successful delivery of life-changing youth programs—facilities for rental groups that can bring in revenue, or small, simple structures that support programs that are already engaging campers?

Since it really comes down to the question of kids or corporations, who are you planning for?

Sandy Bliesener is the President of O’Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates, Inc. (OCBA), and has more than 30 years of experience as a landscape architect. She received a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree from Kansas State University, and has been with OCBA since 1993. Most of her career has centered on working closely with clients to develop designs in the charrette setting, and facilitating public meetings. In addition to corporate and educational campus, park, and public plaza design, she has worked with more than 35 youth organizations throughout the U.S. to develop camp master plans using a participatory process.

Jon Rambow of Slocum Architects and Marlies Manning of Manning Design are also members of this collaborative camp master-planning team, and contributed to this article.