County decides to keep Camp McConnell over Byerly’s objections

Camp Florida’s David Huelsman and Robert Pinter answer questions from the commission


The County Commission’s discussion of what to do about the Camp McConnell property dominated its evening session on January 14, with Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler arguing that the county should keep the land and Commissioner Mike Byerly arguing that the county should stick to its original ranked list of priorities for Wild Spaces Public Places money or make a new ranked list with the help of the community.

Assistant County Manager Gina Peebles started off with a presentation about the history of the purchase. Camp McConnell, a former YMCA camp, was sold to the county on June 22, 2017 for $1,027,000 plus a 10% buyer’s premium. They agreed to sell it to Base Camp Ventures in 2018, but that agreement was withdrawn after information about the buyers became public. The county accepted an offer from Friendship Circle in September 2019; in that case, the buyer withdrew.

Many residents have expressed a desire for the county to operate the property as a camp/retreat or as a public park. Peebles said, “Camp McConnell is not the gem that it once was, but Alachua County staff believes that it can be restored and is committed to doing so, as is evident by our previous success and ongoing county-wide efforts. Alachua County’s in-house professional staff is experienced and is dedicated to the success of Camp McConnell… In the process of rebuilding, Alachua County will ensure that renovations and upgrades are responsible and serve as showcases for resource protection.”

Peebles listed some current offers/ideas:

  • Leslie Straub with Florida Wildlife Care has requested a long-term lease agreement for 50 acres. Her proposal would also require insurance listing the county as an additional insured.
  • Camp Florida wants to purchase the land for $1 million. They are asking Alachua County to pay $400k/year to provide swim lessons to 2000 kids and camp for 363 kids. They are also asking the county to provide appropriate insurance coverage for the public-private partnership.
  • 211 Central submitted a proposal to manage the property, with the county maintaining ownership, for $250k/year, with 5% annual increase, and with the county paying for all utilities and maintenance. Revenue would be split 85% to 211 Central and 15% to the county. 
  • Tallahassee Burn Camp would like to host a camp there in the summer of 2020 because their camp was recently destroyed.
  • 4-H would like to use the camp for overnight leadership retreats and trainings and as a day camp.
  • The Alachua County Parks and Open Space department wants to relocate its main office to Camp McConnell.
  • Rebuilding Together North Central Florida is requesting approximately 5 weeks to house an Americorps NCCT team.
  • Several Alachua County municipalities have requested holding commissioner and staff retreats. 

The staff recommendation included keeping the land and doing some or all of the following:

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  • Rebranding to “McConnell Center – Camp & Retreat”
  • Summer camps with tiered pricing for Alachua County vs. out-of-county participants
  • Day camp/field trip destination for public and private groups
  • Overnight retreat facilities for public and private groups
  • Conference facilities
  • Low and high ropes course for corporate team-building
  • Develop an RV and permittive camping area for gameday and Gatornationals visitors
  • Promote eco-tourism through guided hiking, biking, and equestrian tours 
  • Install a Boundless Playground allowing children, regardless of physical ability, an opportunity to play side-by-side
  • Consider hosting special events such as Medieval Faire, the Greater Alachua County Fair, and small outdoor concerts
  • Allow public access to the pool, trails, courts, and fields when not rented for private use
  • Relocate the County’s Parks and Open Space Department to the property
  • Partner with Florida Wildlife Care through a long-term lease
  • Identify, protect, and preserve historically significant resources
  • Create exhibits celebrating cultural, historical, and natural resources to provide an experiential learning environment
  • Attain accreditation through the American Camp Association
  • Partner with local restaurants for catering needs
  • Install bat houses to assist with insect control
  • Complete waterfront restoration 
  • Partner with Children’s Trust, allowing them to use the property
  • Offer swim lessons to children residing in southern Alachua County

The projected costs of the above are:

  • $520,684 for site work, demolition and abatement
  • $1,763,435 for essential renovations
  • $606,425 for secondary renovations
  • $109,456 for contingency

To pay for it, Peebles discussed using Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) funding of $3,311,750 that is currently earmarked for a Newberry-to-High-Springs rail trail. WSPP is also projected to raise about $7 million in unanticipated revenue, so a portion of that could be used. 

Fees for camps, events, and rentals plus WSPP funds could go toward ongoing operation and maintenance costs, but Peebles estimated that it would initially require a $600k/year county subsidy.

The county would also need to add two full-time positions, a dedicated on-site maintenance person and a manager to market for rentals, coordinate summer camps, and reside on-site for after-hours and emergencies.

County Commissioner Ken Cornell had a document that showed about $8 million in unanticipated WSPP funds. He said (and Byerly agreed) that during the discussions about putting WSPP on the ballot, the commission had agreed to allocate 90% of the funds to conservation lands and 10% to active recreation (rec) projects. So he said only $800k of the unanticipated money could go to active recreation.

Commissioner Wheeler, who has advocated for keeping the property for over 2 years, said, “I just see it as a real wonderful place. We already own it. You own it, if you’re… an Alachua County resident, you already own it… So I’m encouraging my fellow commissioners up here to look at the bigger picture and the long range because it’s a parcel that could be used year-round.”

Wheeler made a 5-part motion: 

  1. Alachua County would retain ownership of Camp McConnell.
  2. Use $3.5 million from the $7 million in unanticipated WSPP revenues to make necessary capital improvements and other necessary purchases for Camp McConnell (or her proposed name of Tuscawilla Park). 
  3. Add 2 positions to the budget, a maintenance worker and an operations manager for Camp McConnell, both funded through the general fund. 
  4. Dedicate registration fees for camps, events, etc., for ongoing operating expenses 
  5. Use 5 years of WSPP for ongoing operating expenses as following: 1st year 100%, 2nd year 80%, 3rd year 60%, 4th year 40%, 5th year 20%.

Cornell seconded the motion for discussion but “disagree[d] with most of it.”

Byerly asked whether this was the best use of the county’s money: “Can we do the same mission better some other way?” He said the commission’s intent was always to buy Camp McConnell, put a conservation easement on it, then sell it and put the money back into WSPP to fund their prioritized list of conservation lands and active rec projects. He said they only bought it to ensure it didn’t turn into a housing project. “That was always the plan, that’s what I voted for. If I knew we would be here tonight in these circumstances, I would not have voted on it. I think this money is better spent on the prioritized list of recreational projects that we already had, spread it around the community, and meet some needs that aren’t currently being met. Most of things that I’ve heard described is kind of a wonderful vision for things that could happen there. Most of it can be done elsewhere in the community now. It’s not all concentrated in one place, but it can be done elsewhere. With a little augmentation dispersed from different projects around the county, we could probably accomplish the same goals and far more cost-effectively.”

Byerly asked Peebles, “If we pull out $3.5 million, spend it on Camp McConnell, fixing it up, what are we forgoing? If we had that money, how else would it be spent? How many different parks, how would it be spread throughout the community? What recreational opportunities would we be providing our citizens?”

Peebles said, “The only list I would be able to provide is the prioritized list from… 2017.”

Byerly said, “We’re up to $9.2 million now… we have more money than we have projects, which is a very rare thing in government. If we were to direct you to come up with more projects, then we’d go through a process wherein Camp McConnell might be one of the things we consider, but we’d also have a process where everyone in the community could contribute their ideas, and we’ve got another $3.5 million to spend on recreation projects. What do we want to do with it? How do we want to spread it around? Or do we want to put it in one place? We never really went through that process. We’re dealing with what’s in front of us, which is Camp McConnell, which is $3.5 million. And again, I’m not convinced yet that that’s the best use for active rec projects for all of Alachua County.”

He established with Peebles that the operation and maintenance (O&M) costs would be about $1.4 million per year, with approximately $800k revenue coming in.

The commission and the County Manager discussed whether it’s legal to use WSPP money for operations (the referendum said the money would be used “to acquire and improve conservation lands and create, improve and maintain parks and recreational facilities”). Assistant County Attorney Dave Forziano said he believes it’s legal to use WSPP for operations if you purchase the land with WSPP money. 

Byerly said, “Again, I would feel much better if we kind of stepped back and said, okay, we’ve decided we have x amount more money to spend than we thought. Let’s develop a new list, and if Camp McConnell rises to the top of the list and that’s what we feel like is the best use of our recreation dollars, then I’ll get behind it and help push, but we haven’t done that yet.”

Byerly then asked Camp Florida organizer David Huelsman whether their plan would work without the proposed $400k/year county subsidy plus insurance coverage. Huelsman replied that their business plan is sound with or without the county money; the subsidy would cover swim lessons and camp for county youth, along with public access to some of the facilities, and in that case they would ask the county to provide liability insurance for that, but that part of the plan was offered in response to the commission’s desire to make the land available for county residents.

Commissioner Wheeler said, “I’m astounded. I’m truly astounded that I can’t make you see the value of owning a piece of property like this for the use of the county, and putting it in private hands guarantees us nothing. It guarantees only that someone else has got the direction of the camp and that will be able to determine who uses that camp… To me, $5,000 an acre is a bargain. Where are you going to take that $1 million that we’re going to get and buy something the equivalent? I’m blown away… We don’t need a middleman who is more intent on making money to pay back a heavy duty loan than we are, who have already got the money to pay for it.”

Huelsman said, “I absolutely agree with everybody… I’m reading all of those e-mails, too, they’re public record, I go on there, and everything that is bring expressed in there. I’m a county resident; I live here. I want all of those things, too. As somebody who has run a nonprofit for a long time, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. So everything that Marihelen Wheeler is talking about and putting in the newspaper, that’s exactly what our mission is. We want to give this back to Alachua County. We want Boulware Springs Charter School to be able to come out there. My son can’t get into Camp Crystal. I want him to have an opportunity to go to camp. I want to be able to give swim lessons because Gainesville and Alachua County is among the worst in all of Florida in the swim lesson space and accidental drownings…. We’re in lockstep.”

Huelsman said they’ve been available for discussions for months, but when staff put their plan together, they weren’t included. He offered three options:

  1. Sell it outright to Camp Florida with no county expenditures: “Sell it to us, we’ll make it amazing, we’ll give you the million dollars… It’s the exact same deal that you gave to the south Florida group, which, again, had absolutely no local ties, had absolutely no programming aspects… Our proposal is stronger and has been stronger the entire time.”
  2. Sell it to Camp Florida and pay them $400k/year for programming: “We will take those kids and teach them all how to swim. We’ll take the kids out of Alachua County who can’t afford to go, we’ll give them camp. We’ll make those experiences amazing for them. Kayaking, ropes courses, archery, all of those things, art room, everything, we’ll make it all available to them if that’s the direction you guys want to go.”
  3. Keep the land as county land but let Camp Florida provide the programming. Huelsman said they would have trouble getting a loan for the capital expenditures without owning the land, so he said if the county keeps the land, they should also make the necessary capital improvements.

Huelsman closed by saying, “Again, I think our proposal is wildly, wildly sane… One way or the other, somebody has to pay for all of the different aspects, and we have to make it work financially. I think that, honestly, Commissioner Wheeler, I think if I listened to your proposal correctly, I think that’s what’s missing from yours. There’s not a way to pay for it that I think is going to work.”

Byerly made a substitute motion to go with option 1, “where we sell the property to Camp Florida, without any commitments for funding or liability.”

When there is a substitute motion, the substitute motion is voted on first. If it fails, the original motion comes up for a vote. 

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson spoke in favor of Wheeler’s motion, which “has some problems that are fixable.” He proposed changing from the  $3.7 million of unanticipated income to $3.3 million from the rail trail. He also put a dollar number on the two full time positions of $120k/year. He didn’t support the 5th element in her motion because he didn’t think they could lock in future commissions, so he proposed allocating $800k in unanticipated WSPP revenue for initial operations.

Byerly asked what they’re getting for the additional capital expenditures laid out in Peebles’s presentation.

Wheeler said, “It’s getting us options. If we’re looking about trying to move equipment for Parks and Rec that need a place to go, if we need housing for some of these places that we’re already paying rent for, if we need a place as an emergency animal shelter facility, or if we—it gives us the options to serve the community on a broad range of need rather than just camps… the bigger needs of the community is what I’m talking about. If we have emergency personnel that need to come in here to fight fires or floods or whatever, if we need a place for Americorps to come in, we have the option to serve the needs of our community on a grander scale than just a childcare camp or swim camp or whatever, it gives us the option of taking care of our community.”

Byerly said, “Given the amount of money we’re talking about spending and obligating ourselves to, from now on, I think we owe it to the public to have a specific list of things that you think can’t be achieved through them running it. A place to put emergency personnel? We don’t need Camp McConnell. We do not need that.”

Cornell proposed a substitute to the substitute motion:

  1. County retains ownership of Camp McConnell. 
  2. Have staff reconcile the spent, funded, and unfunded active recreation projects and return back to the board via e-mail within 30 days to determine the exact available funds.
  3. Convene a community design charrette with staff within 90 days to develop a potential community plan and capital improvement plan. The initial potential capital expense and operating budget would be $2 to $3 million. Florida Wildlife Care should be involved in the charrette.

Although it wasn’t in the motion, he said he also hoped Camp Florida would be involved in the charrette.

During public comment, people spoke both in favor of keeping Camp McConnell and in favor of selling it to Camp Florida.

After public comment, Byerly said, “A number of people who spoke in favor of keeping Camp McConnell made the argument that it’s a wonderful piece of natural land with beautiful nature that people can go see and how are we ever going to get such a deal or replace that somewhere else. I just have to say that we’re in the first year: $3.5 million in capital, $1 million we are not getting back from selling it, $600,000 O&M. We’re over $5 million in the first year out-of-pocket, and you can buy a thousand primo beautiful acres in this county for that amount of money—with far more ecological value in wildlife-corridor-type areas not crammed between 441 and I-75. It’s a pretty piece of land to look at; its ecological value is low, for reasons that any wildlife ecologist could fill you in on, so we are not getting a good deal for the environment. I wanted to dispel that myth. $5 million could buy us five times as much higher-quality environmental land to preserve for future generations and protect wildlife than what we’re doing. Camp McConnell is not about the wildlife.

“There seems to be a lot of concern, maybe suspicion is too strong a word, but uncertainty about what the Camp Florida folks would do if they got the land, that somehow it would be different from what the county is going to do. I just want to emphasize again it’s got an easement on most of the property. Restrictions on what can happen. There’s only one thing these folks could do with the land, and that’s what they’re proposing to do. Which is what we are proposing to do. It’s the same mission. They can’t turn around and build a subdivision. They can’t start manufacturing cars there. All they can do is run a camp for kids. There is no significant difference at all between what the county’s proposing to do, as opposed to this private group. Other than they probably are going to know more about how to run it than we are.

“So it just kind of smacks of ego to me that we have to own it because no one else can do the job. And I would suggest it’s just the opposite. Those folks are better equipped to do the job, and are going to be motivated to do it well, than we are, so that leaves us with a choice between essentially doing the same thing one way, or another way, but the way that’s motion on the floor is that we’re out $5 million and no telling how much more going forward on an annual operating basis. It’s a bad financial decision, and it’s not serving our citizens any better than if we disposed of the property.

“We insist on a business plan, and anyone wants to come do business with us, they don’t get the front door unless they got a business plan. Where’s our plan? How are we going to get a million, $1.1 million in revenue? Where is that coming from? Where is the $600,000 coming from? How does it go up every year? Who are the people lining up? How much are they going to pay? What are the commitments? It’s a giant financial wing and a prayer.

“Now if we’re committing to a $500,000+ expenditure every year to do this, forever, then we ought to say that, but we’re kind of leading the public down this path that we’re going to somehow break even and get our money back. Where do we do that? Where do we ever do that? We’re not going to do that here.

“It’s going to be a permanent ongoing financial strain, and it doesn’t gain us anything. It’s a lot of money out the door. We’ve been raising our budgets a lot lately. We can get the same services and opportunities for our kids, the exact same services, in the hands of people who know how to do it better, and save a lot of money for the taxpayers. So I can’t support the motion on the floor.”

Cornell said, “This may default to Camp Florida as the one that maybe can do it, or maybe not.”

Hutchinson added, “Unspoken in that plan is the county’s really in need of a development officer, private fund-raiser. We’ve got an event center, we’ve got this thing, we’ve got a number of other things that we never touch the private philanthropic community for because we don’t even think about it.”

The second substitute motion (to keep Camp McConnell and hold a charrette) passes 3-1, with Byerly against and Commission Charles “Chuck” Chestnut absent.

Hutchinson closed by saying, “Camp Florida, stay engaged because there’s still a role for you potentially in this plan.”