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Big Week in Efforts to Save Five Girl Scout Camps in Ohio

This is a big week for efforts to save Girl Scout camps in northern Ohio. This Saturday October 29th the board of the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio (GSNEO) at their annual meeting will vote on an amendment to re-evaluate camps.

I’m anxious to see how the vote goes this Saturday and I hope GSNEO figures out what their very upset donor Guy Renkert, President of Ironrock Capital in Canton, Ohio all ready knows. “The girls of NEO need more places to go where they can immerse themselves in nature, not fewer. Strength, courage, empowerment, memories and lifelong friendships are not built in computer labs and new LEED certified buildings. They are built around a campfire having had a fun and challenging, if not a little muddy, day in the woods away from home.” Amen Guy! Amen!

Guy Renkert’s grandfather donated the original land for the marked to be sold GSNEO Great Trail Camp or Renkert Ranch in the 1940s. Then his father donated more land in 1966 and he personally donated 20 acres just as recently as 2003. He and other Ohio business leaders and Girl Scout donors are getting pretty upset about the pending sale of the camps.

Before I write much else, let me state here an apology for our readers. Please excuse the length of this post, but there is a lot of info I want to share about the efforts to save these camps in Ohio. Blog standards would say to break this up into several posts, but I think you’ll all read on to the end of this information pieced together from multiple emails and new articles.

There has been a very active group of volunteers involved in trying to reverse the decision to sell the camps, at least until more due diligence has been conducted.  A group of Girl Scout critics even successfully gathered enough signatures from delegate representatives to require that the board of Girl Scouts of North East Ohio hold a special meeting last Thursday October 20th. This special delegate meeting was to vote on a series of resolutions calling for a HALT to the sale of local Girl Scout camp properties until the plan by GSNEO can be more fully evaluated. Fifty signatures from local Girl Scout delegates, representatives or general assembly members were needed and were collected over the past two months. The special meeting request, with its 50 signatures, was delivered to the GSNEO office on Friday September 30, 2011.
At the special last Thursday October 20th officials with the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio decided to reverse the decision to sell one of the five identified to be sold. It was decided to retain Camp Sugarbush in Trumbull County and to continue with its plan to sell off the other four of its seven Scout camps to fund the development remaining camps into “Premier Leadership Centers.” Camp Sugarbush now joins Camp Timberlane in Wakeman, Ohio (west) and Camp Ledgewood in Peninsula, Ohio (central) on the GSNEO list of wanted camps. 

On www.Cleveland.com the article reported “The board announced Thursday that it will keep the camp open because it needs additional space to create the premier camping experience it has promised its members. Sugarbush got the nod, they said, because the 200-acre property doesn’t require big improvements immediately and it’s in an area with high potential for new members.”

“It is clear that the plans for the premier camps have not been developed enough to know for sure if they will work,” Jan Larsen a lifetime member of Girl Scouts, a member of the Vision 2012 committee, a former council and national delegate, and the wife of a board member of GSNEO writes this critique in a recent email. “Case in point – the reversal of the decision to sell Camp Sugarbush.  Per the Plain Dealer, that decision was made because it was determined that there was not enough viable land at Camp Timberlane and Camp Ledgewood to create enough sites to accommodate our campers.  What other problems will be found with the assumptions that were made about these premier camps that might change the decision to sell some of the other camps?  Once they’re sold it will be impossible to replace them.  This proposal is asking for more time to be sure that the new plan will really work.”

So one camp has been saved, but what about the other four?  That’s where this Saturday’s GSNEO Annual Meeting comes into the story. Included in this weekend’s agenda of GSNEO’s Fall General Assembly meeting is a proposal submitted by a national delegate Roberta Riordan that requires 2/3 of the General Assembly approval for any real estate sales or relinquishment. “With the Board and Board Development Committee making up 20+ members of the 90 voting members, if selling is the best idea, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince 50% of the delegates to agree with them” explains delegate Corey Ringle. “If they can’t convince us, they need better, clearer reasons to sell. I know I’m voting to pass this amendment.”

Delegates of the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio are members of the Girl Scouts organization that represent the general membership. “The delegates, unlike the board, do not have fiduciary responsibility for the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio. But the delegates are expected to introduce motions to change the code of regulations governing the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio, explained Rebecca Shaffer, public relations officer for the Macedonia-based office of Girl Scouts of North East Ohio to www.CantonRep.com. “There are some delegates that are unhappy with the (camp sale) decision,” Shaffer said. “And they are following the correct protocol to change that decision.”

If the weather is decent on October 28, there will also be a camp in on the Macedonia lawn. It is expected that mostly family groups or small, highly dedicated troops will be sleeping out in protest of the sale of their beloved camps.

Camp supporters point out that 75% of council income ($8.2million of $11million) is derived from the girls themselves through cookie and other product sales.

“The girls and their troop leaders fund this council. They have questions that have yet to be answered by the staff and board of GSNEO regarding the sale of the camps. They expect and insist on having a voice at this critical time.” notes Corey Ringle, one of the delegates who organized the signature drive. We have been told it is not a financial decision, so why rush into selling the land? We need to make sure that every aspect is considered and every alternative option explored before we lose any more land.  Once these camps are sold, they are gone forever.”

One commenter on www.Cleveland.com wrote: “Timing is everything. If you’ve been following this at all you know it has become much more than the camp sale. It’s about a board that has failed to inform, consult and work with the membership who do the actual money raising and form the heart of girl scouting. ALL they are asking for is some honesty and integrity in dealing with the girls. They have SAID it is not a financial issue…THINK. IS now the time to sell in Northern Ohio?? Something is most certainly wrong here. Shame on the board members who have divided the girls and stripped the properties. Great job! Great legacy. You have earned it!”

Of course, members of the GSNEO board insist the decision to sell the camps was made to encourage members who would otherwise not camp in rustic settings, to give the outdoors a chance. Members who already enjoy these “primitive” camps felt unheard and unappreciated. “I do find it ironic that, in a world where adults try to teach their girls to stay true to their values and existing friends, don’t change who they are just to become more popular, here is Girl Scouts, pushing away it’s current active members in hopes of attracting more members, changing themselves and throwing away their traditions and values,” shares Corey Ringle.

In the seven months since the decision to sell the camps many Girl Scout members and volunteers have made their frustrations heard by writing the Board of Directors, the CEO, and GSUSA and unfortunately have received very little response in return. One person even sent back to GSNEO in the envelope accompanying their request for money: No camps for me, no money for you. There is also a lot of misinformation out there about the reasons behind selling these camps.

“I think the most upsetting fact is many of the members still believe it’s a financial issue,” explains Corey Ringle. “GSNEO has stated on their website, in press releases, and in many media outlets, that this decision has nothing to do with money. They currently have “firm financial footing” and made a small profit this year. GSNEO pulled $11 million in this year, $8 million from girl product sales. $1 million was spent on properties. Considering 50% of the girls participate, I believe they should spend 50% of their earnings, after salaries, on camp related costs. Salaries are estimated at $5 million and Dr Alford-Smith and two other top employees pull in $100,000+ salaries (Form 990). One camp (Camp Lejnar) has an endowment fund that covers all operating costs.”

But finances aren’t the only thing that is confusing about the justification to sell these camps. “Council continues to change the numbers they chose to present to us,” further explains Corey Ringle. “They change survey results, statistic are skewed, question headings re-worded. At one point we were told $1-2 million to fix up the properties, now $30 million. We are starting to question, is $30 million to fix current issues, or to bring up to the premiere camping standard? At the meeting the Board of Directors stated that 50% of the GSNEO membership used the properties. Recently, the Plain Dealer (local Cleveland newspaper) printed less than 30% of the GSNEO membership uses the properties. These should be hard numbers with little room for interpretation. It’s very frustrating and difficult to trust an organization that refused to present hard facts and raw data. We have already experienced issues before where they\ GSNEO Board of Directors said a very small percentage of girls camp. We later found that to mean girls who used GSNEO properties for GSNEO program. That number grew exponentially when we added troop camping and day usage. When you consider the number of troops that camp offsite due to the difficulty of finding a vacancy, the number grows even more. These numbers should be recorded and accurately presented. It is difficult for Daisies to camp, the percentage raises more when the denominator reflects the number of members who are allowed to participate.”

Another volunteer, Sarah Spiegel uncovered this other tidbit of information: “I found out from Lisa Lidel (gsneo staff outdoor programming) this weekend (and some of you may already know this), neither lake at Ledgewood nor Timberlane is clean enough to swim is.  Besides which both lakes are very tiny. Currently the lakes at Hilaka and Lejnar (and possibly the other camps, I’m not sure) are using for trainings such as flat water canoeing and basic water rescue since you have to get in the water tp learn the skills.  Once only Timberlane and Ledgewood are left, there will be no lakes the girls can swim in, and the trainings (if even possible) will have to be held in the pools. “

“There is no urgency to selling the camps,” Jan Larsen also writes.  “In fact, with the market still in the dumps, this is a buyers market, not a sellers market.  Why not wait until we really know what our plan is and get more money for the camps when the market bounces back. Lastly, if you haven’t seen the letter from the Renkert family who donated the land for Camp Great Trail, find it and read it.”

“Excerpt from Renkert family: “We believe the board of directors of GSNEO is not acting in good faith and urge you to stop all plans to close or sell the Great Trail Camp… Future support for GSNEO by my family, our company and countless others in our community will hinge upon your actions.  It is my opinion, and that of many other family, business and community leaders, that if you can’t respect the gifts that were made to the organization in the past then there is no reason to support GSNEO in the future.” 

“To lose the support of the community is certain death of Girl Scouting in that area, explains Jan Larsen.  “The Great Trail legacy council has already lost Camp Lycopodia in the first round of camp sales.  Losing Camp Great Trail will leave them with no camp within their region’s borders.”

I pray the meeting this weekend goes well and next week I can post a positive story about the outcome of the GSNEO Annual Meeting.

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