Girl Scouts and camping have shared a close association for generations, but the four Girl Scout camp properties in Eastern Iowa have been losing hundreds of thousands of dollars for years.
Those losses – averaging $604,000 a year since 2008 – have put the camps on the chopping block. A property committee with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois has recommended the Board of Directors sell all four properties.
The committee also recommended initiating a feasibility study to look at possibly developing a single centrally-located program and outdoor center while also working with local organizations to use their facilities in the future.
The board is scheduled to vote on the proposals March 28, but a large group of parents, scouts and alumni are fighting the recommendations. The opposition group, called Save our Girl Scout Camps, is challenging the suggestion to sell the properties and asking the board to table its vote.
“There is something unique and special about Girl Scouts camp,” said Joni Kinsey Fields, a lifetime Girl Scouts member, an Iowa City troop leader and the mother of a scout. “It’s not something you can replace with an air-conditioned outdoor center.”
Several online petitions and websites have been launched opposing the sale of all four Iowa camps. More than 1,800 people have signed Field’s petition, which makes the plea, “Do not make the irrevocable mistake of selling all the Girl Scout camps in Eastern Iowa.”
Last year, the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois put about $1 million into its four camps — Camp Conestoga, northwest of the Quad Cities, Camp Little Cloud in the Dubuque area, Camp L-Kee-Ta near Danville, and Camp Tahigwa, northeast of Decorah.
Those camps brought in a combined $490,000 in revenue, resulting in a net loss of about $513,000 — the best year the camps have had since before 2008, according to council research.
The council’s research shows that from 2008 to 2012, 57 percent of the average scout membership attended a camp facility for some reason — be it a troop activity, council event or training, summer camp or something else.
But, when considering summer camp attendance alone, the council saw a 34 percent decline during that five-year period — resulting in an average attendance of 1,945, which is 50 percent of the camp capacity and just 11 percent of the total girl membership.
In response to these declines, the council polled its scout membership about camp perceptions and usage, said Diane Nelson, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois.
“Those who love camp, love camp,” Nelson said. “But for the larger percentage who are not using it, some of the things they said is that the facilities are not up to speed.”
Flushing toilets, for example, are now viewed as mandatory rather than optional, she said. And upgrading the four camp properties, which already are draining the budget, could become too burdensome, Nelson said.
“I think that sooner or later, you are going to have an impact if you are losing $600,000 a year,” she said. “Like anyone’s personal account, it will take an impact on other aspects of the Girl Scouts.”
Still, Nelson stressed, the board is only considering the recommendation. Members are scheduled to vote March 28.
If the board decides to sell the camp properties, members likely will explore the development of a new “outdoor experience center” aimed at providing a camp experience for girls while meeting their more modern needs.
“And we will always have camping program for our girls,” Nelsons said. “Campers who love the camping will have it. It will never go away.”
Regardless of what the board decides later this month, there will be camping at the four properties this summer, Nelson said. And, she said, the property committee and board members have been listening to volunteers and members who want to keep it that way.
But some members and parents aren’t so sure. Last week, the opposition spoke with board members and Nelson about the proposal to sell the properties.
In the discussion via teleconference, the concerned individuals asked the board to either vote “no” on the proposal later this month or to table the topic and give it more thought and research. They also asked that the proposal go to a vote of the membership.
The group is gathering signatures on a petition that could change the council’s bylaws to allow for a vote, said concerned member Fields.
“There was a fairly outspoken resistance and objection to that proposal from a prominent board member,” Fields said. “She was strongly opposed to any sort of change to the process.”
The opposition is concerned that the council has been de-emphasizing camp programming for years and didn’t do its research before coming to the proposal to sell the properties.
“I think what our group is really saying is that the council has not done sufficient background work to find alternatives,” Fields said. “We have proposed some very specific ideas and options for alternatives.”
Debra Stork, a camper, counselor and camp director for decades at Camp Conestoga, said discussion about a new center doesn’t calm her fears.
“There isn’t an actual proposal and there isn’t a plan,” she said. “Those are words that have come out of their mouths. But there is no plan that has been shared yet.”
Some board members have brought up the idea of selling one or two properties, Stork said. But that’s not acceptable to the group of concerned members.
“We are not getting the feeling that the board is being open to its membership,” she said. “They are saying, ‘We are listening, and we will vote.’ But that doesn’t tell us a whole lot.”
Ellen Fields, 13, of Coralville, has been going to Girl Scout camp for years and wanted to become a counselor. She said she’s disheartened by the proposal to sell and shutter the properties that she has grown to love, but she’s holding out hope.
“I really want to be able to be a counselor and keep going to camp for a long time,” she said.
A more modern facility, with all the amenities, would not qualify as a camp experience for Fields, she said. And, if the council decides to go that way, she doesn’t know if she’ll go with them.
“I’m not sure I would want to be a part of Girl Scouts any more if they closed down the camps,” Fields said. “It doesn’t seem like Girl Scouts to do that. And if this is how they are going to treat us, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it anymore.”