Press-Republican

November 15, 2010

Eagle Island Camp for sale

KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

UPPER SARANAC LAKE — The historic Eagle Island Camp on Upper Saranac Lake is for sale.

Members of the Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey put wheels in motion to divest their organization of the property, a 31-acre island dotted with rustic Adirondack Great Camp structures that date to 1903.

Many of the buildings are the original design of renowned architect William L. Coulter and were listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1987.

The property was made a National Historic Landmark in 2004.

CAMP DESIGN

The Historic Register nomination report called Eagle Island Camp "exceptionally significant" historically "as a quintessential and highly intact example of an American Adirondack camp.

"Built in 1903 for prominent American financier and statesman Levi P. Morton, Eagle Island retains an extremely high level of integrity, setting, plan, design, style, materials and method of construction and is considered the finest example of the work of (Coulter.)"

CLOSED TWO YEARS

The Girl Scouts have owned and run a summer camp at Eagle Island since 1938.

For the past two summers, the camp program remained closed, its docks pulled up, the famous transport boat The Ark dry-docked and idle in the boat house.

EXPENSES CITED

Officials at Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey, based in Westfield, N.J., explained that they opted out of renovations and repairs needed to meet current safety codes recommended in an engineering study done last year.

"When coupled with the camp's declining attendance over the last eight years and the approximate six-hour drive to reach the camp, it was determined the costs were too prohibitive to continue to maintain and run the camp," they said in a statement announcing the decision.

Heart of New Jersey scout leaders held a series of town hall meetings in recent months and surveyed members to gather input on the future of Camp Eagle Island.

The process concluded that "although many options were explored, (Heart of New Jersey) were unable to create a business case that would fully support the council's winning proposition and its key priorities."

DIFFICULT DECISION

Heart of New Jersey CEO Susan Brooks issued a statement calling the decision "a difficult one for all who were involved" and citing "the path taken to make sure it was inclusive and thorough."

Council spokeswoman Nancy Zimmerman said Monday the property is now being winterized.

No price has been set for the sale.

"We're at the very tip of the iceberg," Zimmerman said. "We're trying to get people in place now for the committee and set up a task force to manage the selling process."

FRIENDS SURVEY

But another group of former campers has already put a finger to the wind.

Friends of Eagle Island is looking to raise capital to buy the island, with the intention of keeping the property running as a wilderness camp for girls.

They just launched a survey canvassing their membership of 1,000 or more supporters.

Spearheading the effort, Friends Chairwoman Dorcas Hardy said they have "not given up on serving the girls who find meaningful opportunities on the island."

In a statement, Hardy said Friends of Eagle Island set their focus "in order to honor the intent of financier Henry Graves Jr., who gave his summer retreat to the Girl Scouts so that children might spend their summers on this beautiful, pristine island forever. This camp experience has served to strengthen and enlighten girls for a lifetime."

'BEAUTIFUL'

The pending sale of a large and hugely significant historic property has caught the attention of Adirondack preservationists at Adirondack Architectural Heritage.

Executive Director Steve Engelhart said he was not surprised to learn of the Heart of New Jersey decision to divest.

"They haven't opened in two years, and the new group of Girl Scout administrators in the organization seem to have no connection to the place. They don't seem to understand the kind of unique camping opportunity Eagle Island Camp provides."

Engelhart could not predict or estimate a selling price for the historic real estate.

"They or their realtor will go about some process of valuating its worth basing it on comparables," he said.

"But when you put something like this on the open market, anybody can buy it. We can't assume the buyer will value the historic buildings — we'd like to think so, that interested parties will see they are very wonderful, beautiful and attractive."

EASEMENTS

As for the efforts of Friends of Eagle Island, Engelhart said if they were looking to raise funds to buy, "they're going to have to compete against the open market, in a timely fashion."

Eagle Island Camp is not on the Architectural Heritage list of threatened historic sites, at least not yet.

"Someone could come along and buy it who is a wonderful steward," Engelhart said. "There is no reason at this point to put it on an endangered list. We don't know what's going to happen next, but we're definitely paying attention.

"We have written to the Girl Scouts and provided information about the benefits of preservation and conservation easements.

"We are just letting them know those options out there, and after 70 years of loving and caring for this island, we think they should have some sense of responsibility about its future. An easement is a mechanism to do that."

An easement could protect some previous usage rights.

Hardy, in starting up fundraising, asked what may be the key question:

"We are motivated by a common thought: What if Eagle Island was sold and ceased to be a summer camp and I did nothing to stop it—

E-mail Kim Smith Dedam at: kdedam@pressrepublican.com