For more than 70 years, Camp Onway has been a rustic waterfront retreat in Raymond, N.H., where generations of Boy Scouts have paddled canoes, roasted marshmallows, and learned to pitch a tent.
But nothing lasts forever. Soon the beloved camp may be sold to the Mormon Church. It's a prospect that has upset many present and former campers.
"Selling a Scout camp is like eating the seed corn," said Donald Doughty of Atkinson, N.H., who worked at Onway last summer. "We thought the camp would be an asset for generations of Boy Scouts to come."
The camp is owned by the Yankee Clipper Council of the Boys Scouts of America, which is based in Haverhill and oversees Scouting in 52 communities from Lynn to southern New Hampshire, including Chelmsford, Dracut, Lawrence, Lowell, Tyngsborough, and Westford.
After receiving an offer for the property from the church, the council's study committee recommended the sale of the 110-acre camp for $2.8 million. The 47-member executive board of the council is scheduled to vote on the proposal a week from today.
"It was an unsolicited offer," Randy Larson, executive director of the Yankee Clipper Council, said last week. The Mormon Church, which has rented the facility in the past from the council, intends to operate a girls' camp on the property, Larson said, "and they've offered to let us still use the camp in the winter, spring, and fall."
Camp Onway was acquired by the Boy Scouts for $4,400 in 1929. It now has about a dozen cabins -- some insulated for winter use -- and a dining hall on Onway Lake. Most of the work was done by volunteers.
The Yankee Clipper Council owns two other camps, Wah-Tut-Ca in Northwood, N.H., and Lone Tree in Kingston, N.H. Attendance at Onway and Lone Tree has declined over the past several years, while attendance at Wah-Tut-Ca has increased, according to the report compiled by the study committee.
Worcester resident Scott Bower, formerly of Andover, was an assistant camp counselor and assistant program director of Camp Onway. He is also an Eagle Scout and opposes the sale. He said he fondly remembers "pirates' breakfasts," when campers canoed out to an island for pancakes singing "corny songs. "
"It would be a shame if other boys couldn't have that experience," he said.
"Selling the camp shouldn't be a first resort," said Doughty. "First you should have a fund-raising campaign, then maybe sell the development rights, then put it on the market so everyone interested could make an offer."
Opponents of the sale have created the website SaveOurScoutCamps.com, and are circulating a petition that has more than 600 signatures opposing the sale.
"It seems as though they've turned their backs on the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who donated their labor over the decades and consider themselves stewards of the camp for future generations," said Matt Augeri of Londonderry, N.H., an Eagle Scout who is an assistant Scout master and district activities chairman of the council.
He said he fears that since the camps are run by volunteers, proceeds from the sale will be used to increase the salaries of the council's professional staff and upgrade the offices in Haverhill.
Larson said that is not the case. He said the proceeds will be used to increase the council's endowment, upgrade its other camps, and improve marketing and communications. "We have to do a better job of getting kids into Scout camps," he said.
Specifically, he sees much room for improvement in the cities of Lawrence and Lowell, where the Latino community has swelled in recent years and is underrepresented in Scouting. "We haven't done a good job of reaching out to the community," he said, "particularly the Latino community in Lawrence and Lowell."
Larson said he was saddened, but not surprised, by opposition to the sale.
"There's no issue that's more emotional than a property sale," he said. "In a way you're selling people's memories."