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County Commission decides to start over on Camp McConnell property

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / OCTOBER 9, 2019

At their regular meeting on October 8, the Alachua County Commission voted to reject all proposals to purchase Camp McConnell and re-start the process of deciding what to do with it.

The county purchased Camp McConnell, a 212-acre property that was formerly a YMCA camp, in 2017 for about $1.02 million, using Wild Spaces and Public Places funds. They have made several attempts to sell it, but each negotiation has failed. In the past few months, the county seemed to have agreed on terms with Friendship Circle, an organization that runs camps for children, teens, and adults with special needs and their families. 

An existing building at Camp McConnell

During the negotiations with Friendship Circle, a second proposal was submitted by Camp Florida, represented by David Huelsman, president of Gator Water Polo, and Robert Pinter, the head coach of Gator Swim Club. During its September 11 meeting, the County Commission discussed ways in which Camp Florida and Friendship Circle could partner in using the property, but Huelsman said that didn’t make sense, given that they both needed it during the summer and school holiday periods. It seemed that some of the commissioners were leaning toward re-opening the negotiations and giving Camp Florida a chance to buy the property, but in the end they agreed that since they already had an agreement with Friendship Circle, it would be unfair to back out on it.

During the October 3 Gainesville City Commission meeting, City Commissioner Gail Johnson announced that the sale to Friendship Circle had fallen through: “So there’s still an opportunity for that incredible land to be utilized by all of our citizens because it’s still going to be owned by the county, and clearly there’s quite a bit of interest from… the community to keep it in the… hands of the public, and potentially be utilized by all of us… I would love for us to be at least one of the partners in figuring out how we can re-develop and use this space for all of us.”

Throughout the process, County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler has advocated for keeping the land in the county’s hands; during yesterday’s regular County Commission meeting, she suggested taking $2 million from Wild Spaces and Public Places (WSPP) to make the necessary improvements at the camp and then run it as a county park. However, it is unclear that she has any support on the County Commission for this. At the September 11 meeting, when it was suggested that the county find some other land for Camp Florida to use, Commissioner Mike Byerly said that he wouldn’t be in favor of that unless they listed all tracts of land and discussed the highest and best use of each one. Byerly is clearly not in favor of considering any use of county land or WSPP funds in a vacuum—he wants to make sure all uses are considered before resources are simply sold to an organization that just happens to have a proposal before the commission right now. Also, it is unclear whether WSPP funds can be used to operate the facility, and the County Commission does not seem to favor taking on the expense of running Camp McConnell as a county park.

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After making and revising several motions, the commission voted to: 1) Schedule a discussion of Camp McConnell for the evening portion of a future regular County Commission meeting, at which time county staff would bring any information from interested parties; 2) Reject all proposals and inform the parties that have submitted proposals; and 3) Direct staff to reach out to the City of Gainesville to understand the intent of Gail Johnson’s motion—is the city willing to participate in programming, capital, etc.?

David Huelsman attended the meeting and spoke several times, seeming frustrated with the process. His position is that he was second in line for the property, no other organization had come forward with the funds to purchase and operate the facility, and now that Friendship Circle has decided not to purchase it, he should be at the front of the line. 

Camp Florida has put forth a full proposal for converting the property to a camp that would be available to the citizens of Alachua County, as well as bringing in tourists from around the country and even from overseas. They have raised $2.17 million in private donations, and they propose using that money to renovate the camp, including an all-new, state-of-the-art aquatic facility: a 50m Olympic-size pool, a 30m warm-up pool, and an aquatics building, including locker rooms, a weight room, an athletic training room, a multipurpose room, a conference room, laundry, deck storage, and some office space. The facility includes solar power, geothermal heating and cooling, and chlorine generation on campus to avoid transportation and storage of chemicals.

The current state of the pool at Camp McConnell

If Camp Florida were able to purchase the property now, they envision opening it for non-aquatic uses as soon as they can make it safe (it has not been maintained for about 4 years), with all of the facilities available by summer of 2021. They would use the facility as a camp approximately 20 weeks per year, and that revenue would allow them to offer the camp to local groups, such as the Alachua County School Board, the other 30 weeks of the year. Their proposal says they will host “a variety of activities ranging from day trips to multiple day events, such as: science camps, science walks, enrichment for art and PE classes, swim lessons, archery, ropes courses, a rock wall, teacher in-services, team building, retreats, and many more opportunities for the youth and residents of Alachua County to enjoy the beauty of this property.”

They will also offer public lap swim, scheduled public availability of tennis and basketball courts, and sliding-scale fees for swim and tennis lessons. Between 30 to 75 spaces for each session of camp will be reserved for local underprivileged youth.

Huelsman is frustrated that both city and county commissioners keep talking about wanting to make the property available to local citizens, but they don’t seem to acknowledge all of the pieces of his proposal that do just that. Also, they seemed to be fine with the sale to Friendship Circle, which only allowed the county to use the facility for 2 weeks a year. 

Huelsman also argues that the camp is continuing to deteriorate, and restarting the process now could delay the opening of the camp by up to a year, with more repairs and more funds needed before opening.

One sticking point for the county, at least according to Commissioner “Hutch” Hutchinson, is that Camp Florida wants to put its money into capital improvements at first instead of paying cash for the property; they have proposed paying off the property at $100k/year for 10 years. Huelsman argues that the value the county will get from Camp Florida is well worth any costs to the county of essentially financing the sale, particularly when compared to the costs the county would incur if they tried to run the facility. Aside from that specific criticism and Wheeler’s desire to keep the land in county hands, it wasn’t clear why the commission was unwilling to have further talks with Camp Florida and instead decided to start over. 

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