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Camp TreeTops: Death of a Dream

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What happened to the Van Wyck camp for at-risk kids

By Reece Murphy

By now, the arguments by opponents of residential development of the TreeTops property on Van Wyck Road are well-known: potential stresses on infrastructure and schools, frustrations with unresponsive county officials and the property's legacy as a camp for impoverished children.
With Lancaster County Council set to vote Monday, Dec. 8, on final reading of two ordinances that would allow Lennar Homes to begin work on an 835-home subdivision – a development agreement and cluster overlay zoning that makes the venture profitable – the latter argument is worth another look.
More than a mere appeal to emotion, the argument gets to the heart of the passions riled in many Van Wyck residents by development of the property, one they say pits a dead man's vision against those who would profit from its remains.
To most opponents, the villain is not so much Lennar as the property's current owner and seller, Mathews, N.C.-based Thompson Child and Family Focus, a 125-year-old nonprofit they say took over the camp in 2008, promising to keep the founder's dream alive, but eyeballing the bottom line all along.
"I would say they never had any intention of doing anything with the property," Van Wyck resident and former TreeTops board member Genie Graham said of Thompson. "They kept the property manager on a little bit and then they let it go.
"When they walked away, everything that people gave, everything that people built, was overrun by vandals. It was just atrocious," she said. "Everything Thompson said was a lie. They said it cannot be run as a camp and they knew good and well it could be."
The vision
The Camp TreeTops story begins with late Fort Mill businessman and philanthropist Fred C. Wikoff Jr. and his donation of the property to the nonprofit Family Center, an organization he helped establish and support to fight child abuse.
Then valued at $1.5 million, the 622-acre property included hundreds of acres of near-pristine wilderness, a 15-acre lake and a lodge. The family retreat was the perfect place to realize Wikoff's vision, conceived as he recovered from a near-deadly airplane crash in 1995.
Wikoff wanted to create "a new kind of retreat,” intended to serve poor children, senior citizens, the community, the environment and provide an opportunity for collaboration between regional partners.
"TreeTops is to provide a camp with dormitories and programs for abused and neglected children," Wikoff wrote in his memoir. "It is also destined to include residential units for senior citizens who want to help the children.
"Camp is a wonderful place, where it doesn't matter what you look like, where you come from, who you know or what you have done. Because at camp you can be anything you want to be," he wrote. "I can think of no better thing to have happen in those woods by the lake that have meant so much to me."
Family Center's president and CEO at the time was Chris Teat, Wikoff's stepdaughter.
Teat described her stepfather as plain-spoken, direct to a fault and honest, characteristics that endeared him to those who knew him, a man who set his mind to do something and did it.
"He believed God kept him alive for a purpose," Teat said. "By that time, his company was grown to the point where he didn't need any further business success, so he decided what God saved him for was to help children.
"Because he had helped start Family Center in 1978, it was a natural progression," she said. "He had always believed in being outdoors and in nature and testing your mettle – all the things kids could learn at the camp."
The plan

Wikoff's vision for Camp TreeTops was expansive, but it came with a longterm plan to make it self-sufficient.
One key was collaboration, a concept Wikoff had proven effective by the international success of his employee-owned company, Wikoff Color Corp., a rare concept in the company's early days.
The camp would depend on volunteers from both Carolinas, mostly senior citizens whom Wikoff believed had the will, knowledge and wisdom to serve as mentors to the children and support the camp's goal of teaching children life lessons through camping.
Wikoff also sought to inspire regional collaboration between individuals, businesses, schools, agencies and nonprofits in Lancaster, York, Chester, Mecklenburg and Union counties.
Camp TreeTops hosted its first campers in 2001, the children housed in yurts and fed donated meals cooked by community members.
Site improvements and construction of new facilities began to support and subsidize the summer camps through weekend and off-season rentals.
And it worked.
Soon businesses began renting the lodge for conferences and the challenge course for team building, couples were married in the chapel, churches held picnics and services by the lake, Scouts camped in the woods and the University of South Carolina Lancaster used the grounds as an outdoor environmental classroom.
When Wikoff died in January 2003, his vision was alive and well.
The Family Center kicked off a $7 million capital campaign that year to fund, along with other infrastructure, a new grand lodge with a commercial kitchen that would boost the business plan to another level. It raised $2.5 million almost immediately.
The camp built three cabins by 2005 and another eight by fall 2007, all funded by private donations or built free of charge by a Charlotte construction company.
Volunteers from the community were doing their part, too, including nearly 250 retirees from nearby Sun City Carolina Lakes.
"That first five or six years of camp was great," Teat said. "All these people in Van Wyck would bring meals. It was an incredible community collaboration; volunteers from Lancaster and all counties in the region. You would think this is what things ought to be like."
What happened?
Though things at the camp were going well, friction on the Family Center board in 2005 led to Teat's ouster later in the year, the first development in a three-year period that would lead to one final, fatal collaboration for the camp.
According to the Charlotte Business Journal, the Family Center celebrated the completion of its $7 million capital campaign for TreeTops in 2006, followed by the hiring of a new president/CEO and a move to a new headquarters building.
Wikoff's business plan to subsidize summer camps through facilities rentals was also working well, the Business Journal reported, holding registration fees for camp to $50 a child instead of the program’s cost of $300 each.
The celebration was short-lived, however, and whether a result of poor management, overspending, a tanking economy or all of the above, the Family Center fell into financial difficulties in 2007.
Faced with a $3 million operating deficit, according to the Charlotte Business Journal, Family Center board members approached Thompson in 2007 about  merging, since it had a similar mission to help at-risk families.
Thompson, led by president and CEO Ginny Amendum, agreed and in June 2008 the organization absorbed Family Center and its debt.
Included in the deal was Camp TreeTops, which never hosted another children's camp. 
The argument
This forms the crux of development opponents' argument that Thompson acquired the camp and intentionally turned its back on it, despite assurances otherwise, and allowed it die of neglect before putting it on the market.
Opponents point to a letter of intent between Thompson and the Family Center dated April 15 they note was conveniently nonbinding.
In the agreement, Thompson said it would commit $1.5 million to complete the new lodge, dining facility and sports fields within 18 months, and would continue programs at the camp until "the third anniversary of the completion of the lodge."
It also agreed, should the business plan not generate enough revenue, to pay at least $500,000 each year between 2009 and 2011 to host 10 camp sessions each summer for 60 campers a week.
The agreement went on to say Thompson would hire all Family Center employees with wages and benefits better than or equal to their packages with Family Center.
Kristy Davis, Camp TreeTops director at the time, said the chairman of the Family Center board told her and others at the camp about the pending merger in March 2008.
She said retreats and team building groups continued to use the camp for a while, but employees were told to cancel scheduled weddings.
"We were all terribly sad," Davis said of the news. "Our volunteers couldn't believe it because they saw the good work being done there. Some even wrote letters to the board.
“We were told TreeTops would continue its work, but the TreeTops staff all lost their jobs at the time, except the property manager and myself," she said. "I was let go in June of 2008."
Thompson’s response
In an April 13, 2012, article outlining Thompson's decision to put the TreeTops property on the market for $9.3 million, former Thompson president and CEO Ginny Amendum told the Charlotte Business Journal the organization did so in part because TreeTops "had no sustainable business plan."
She said Thompson spoke with other charitable organizations and church groups that specialized in summer camps and outdoor programs about partnerships to keep the program going, but nothing materialized.
The TreeTops mission, she said, was too far outside Thompson's mission.
"Who doesn't want kids to have the opportunity to roast marshmallows and paddle a canoe?" she said in the article. "But we can't be all things to all people."
In a phone conversation Wednesday, Dec. 3, current president and CEO Mary Jo Powers, Thompson's COO at the time of the merger, said the organization tried to keep the camp going.
Powers was adamant that Thompson never intended to close the camp after the merger and said it kept operations going until September 2009 with little or no revenue and considerable expense.
She said in addition to property taxes and other Family Center debt resulting from the merger, Thompson paid back $1.5 million in construction loans and private donations for construction projects that never happened.
Powers said Thompson reached out to other organizations and heard proposals to keep the camp operational, but all fell short.
She said she believed the camp's founders had a beautiful vision, but the sad reality was there was never an offer that would sustain it.
"I think there were never any legitimate offers from any of the agencies we spoke to, and if there was any lease (offer), they didn't cover liability and they didn't want to build infrastructure on the property," Powers said.
"All of this doesn't matter at this point, because it didn't happen, and we can't go back and change what did happen," she said. "But there was not a business case that came forward that made sense."

YMCA lease offer
Former Family Center board member Alfred Brand disputes Thompson’s assertion that there never were any legitimate offers. Brand said he and Upper Palmetto YMCA CEO Moe Bell made Thompson an offer they wouldn't even consider.
Brand, a major donor to Camp TreeTops through his Dalton Brand Foundation, said he "sort of lost interest" for awhile after the merger until he decided to visit the camp while in the area.
Brand said he was appalled by the camp's condition and called Thompson to say he'd pay for someone to "at least mow the roads."
Brand said he later talked to Bell about taking over the camp, even took him over to see it.
He said Bell and his board were excited about the opportunity to fix the camp up and take over on a three-year lease, but Amendum and Thompson wouldn't accept their offer.
"They said they didn't want to put a lease on it because if anybody came to buy it, it would be tied up in a lease," Brand said. "They said 'we don't want to lease it out, we want to sell it.'''
"Out of a little bit of respect for the Thompson Center [sic], they said they didn't know anything about camps," he said. "They were more of an urban outfit and they didn't feel comfortable about operating a camp at all."
Bell confirmed the offer, saying the telephone conversation with Thompson – he and Brand were never afforded a face-to-face meeting – occurred sometime in late 2010 or early 2011.
He said Upper Palmetto YMCA had a great vision for how to use the property with day camps, overnight camps in the summer, environmental education classes and weekend retreat rentals for outside groups.
Bell said the biggest hope was that Thompson might donate the camp to UPYMCA, or even sell it for the right price. He said he first offered Thompson a long-term lease because it was middle ground. Thompson said no.
Bell said UPYMCA countered with a three-year lease until the real estate market improved, then a one-year lease.
But Thompson, he said, was having none of it.
He said certification was never an issue, since UPYMCA already owned one certified camp and could easily earn certification for another.
Bell said he told Thompson his group was willing to make any infrastructure repairs needed to reopen the camp, and liability wasn't an issue since UPYMCA had a $5 million policy that would indemnify Thompson.
Bell said he believed Thompson was doing what they thought right for their organization, but gave little thought to Wikoff's wishes, the Family Center board's desires or the donors and volunteers who built the cabins and the camp.
Bell remembers his disappointment and frustration with the way the conversation went.
"I think Family Center's wishes were that it would never be torn down," Bell said. "They thought the camp would be used for what Mr. Wikoff intended.
"(Family Center) put faith in the Thompson group it was going to be used for kids, and I said that to her (Amendum), because I was a little upset they didn't even consider our offer," he said. "She said, kind of obliquely, the money was still going to go back to kids by supporting their mission. But in my mind, that was kind of a stretch."
Too late to resolve?

In the aftermath, Teat said the thing that surprises her the most is that when Family Center was seeking rezoning for the camp in 2000-01, Lancaster County Council wanted assurance that the property would be preserved and remain a camp.
"We spent hours with people in Van Wyck, assuring them it was going to be a camp for children and would be preserved," Teat said. "For County Council to build a development out there is … I understand business, but this is exactly what we had to prove we would not do.
"It just goes against Mr. Wikoff's vision and everything we did," she said.
Former County Council member Alston DeVenny said he remembers the camp's rezoning and remembers there was, like now, public opposition to the camp's plans, too.
He said the council's concern then revolved around the fact that development had not yet reached that far south in Indian Land and wasn't appropriate for the area.
DeVenny said he believes opponents of the Lennar development today have valid points about the development’s effects on roads, but circumstances change, and county ordinances allow council to change its mind on issues.
Without a deed restriction, changes in state law or the will of the council, there's not much that can be done to prevent development of the property, DeVenny said.
"You have, too, political considerations, and then one of a sort that 'It's your property and you can do with it what you want to,' and that seems to have won the day," DeVenny said.
"The natural world cannot be created, it can only be protected, but you kind of have to have a larger plan in place to protect the land and the water," he said. "There is a sense of loss anytime a piece of property, especially a piece of property as beautiful as that one, is developed.”
Teat said in retrospect she knows a simple deed restriction would have prevented the situation Camp TreeTops is in today and said she was simply "too naive and trusting."
Teat still holds on to hope that even at this late date the camp's legacy can somehow continue, but she's also realistic about what she would say to her father if she could see him.
"I think every once in a while, how when I die and go to heaven, how am I going to sit down with Dad and tell him?" Teat said. "He told it like it is and everybody loved that about him, so I'd have to tell him, 'Dad, we screwed up.'
"'You had this wonderful dream and a wonderful gift, and we let it fall through our fingertips.'"
Graham said she believes much of the passion among Van Wyck residents about development of the TreeTops property stems from the community's deep involvement with making Wikoff's dream a reality.
She said it was a wonderful thing to see volunteers from across the region respond so enthusiastically to the camp, but Van Wyck, with its strong community spirit "really got what it was all about."
She said the community is also proud of the property's status as an ecological treasure with a wealth of wildlife and an amazing botanical diversity that will be lost with its development.
There's only one other thing Graham said is more frustrating. Those with the power to prevent both the property and the dream's destruction won't help prevent it.
"The previous owner had very strong feelings about what he wanted done to that property, and The Family Center wanted to continue that," Graham said. "The Van Wyck community also have very strong feelings about what they want to see in their area, and County Council will just not hear us.
"I would like to see Fred Wikoff's dream come to fruition," she said. "I would just like to see these kids given a chance and other people being able to help them."