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updated: 3/3/2011 8:12 PM

Saying goodbye to Camp Algonquin

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  • Camp Algonquin will soon close due to financial difficulties.

      Camp Algonquin will soon close due to financial difficulties.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer


Event organizers are making last-minute arrangements to relocate after Camp Algonquin, a fixture along the Fox River for more than 100 years, announced it will close March 17.

The Algonquin camp is run by the YMCA of McHenry County, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, citing rising maintenance costs and declining membership that led to a $1.4 million deficit.

In November 2008, three teenagers drowned in the Fox River after they sneaked out of their Camp Algonquin dormitories during the night to ride paddle boats.

Two of the youths' families filed wrongful death lawsuits against the YMCA of McHenry County, the company that ran the retreat and the Chicago high school that sponsored the trip. The lawsuits are not a factor in the decision to file for bankruptcy, said YMCA of McHenry County Treasurer and board member Catherine Williams.

"That really has nothing to do with our financial decision," she said.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago is set to purchase the YMCA of McHenry County's assets for $1.65 million, a deal that was approved Wednesday by a Rockford judge, Williams said. A closing date is set for March 17.

An uncertain future

The YMCA of McHenry County has leased Camp Algonquin's 116 acres from the McHenry County Conservation District since 2005. The lease would have ended Dec. 31, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago was not interested in taking it over, Williams said.

Despite some recent renovations funded by the Gardner Educational Support Foundation, some of the camp's buildings and swimming pool need extensive repairs, Williams said.

"These are 50-, 60-, and 70-year-old buildings. Plumbing and basic services were beginning to be a challenge," she said. "We deferred a lot of repairs. That's what happens when you get into financial difficulty."

Camp operations brought in under $10,000 in cash flow, she said.

Anne Bergquist, vice president of brand management and marketing for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, said Camp Algonquin was "not among the assets we sought to purchase." Bergquist declined further comment, but added the organization already owns four overnight camps in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

McHenry County Conservation District Executive Director Elizabeth Kessler said the agency has made no decision yet about the future of the camp. The board of trustees "needs to be sure the decision is a viable, long-term solution," she said.

New arrangements

Camp Algonquin Director Lynda Fauser said she e-mailed last week the groups that already had booked events at the camp to inform them about the upcoming closure, suggesting Covenant Harbor Camp and Retreat Center in Lake Geneva as an alternative for education and weekend events.

"We are helping wherever we can," she said.

The semiannual Stand Down for Homeless Veterans, which provides employment counseling, housing information, haircuts and more to homeless veterans, originally was scheduled to take place at Camp Algonquin later this month.

The news of the camp's closure was "devastating," said Amy Johnson, program director for NASA Education Corp., which has sponsored the Stand Down event at the camp since 2006.

"Camp Algonquin has always been a place where they welcomed us with open arms. It's kind of like losing family members," she said.

But the forced change in venue also prompted a positive change in the event's format, she said.

The renamed NASA Education Corporation's Spring Veterans' Conference will take place Monday, April 11, and Tuesday, April 12, at Harvest Bible Chapel and Country Inn and Suites, both in Crystal Lake. All usual services for veterans will be provided, but the event will be more like a conference, with a schedule of speakers and sessions, Johnson said.

"It's a new and exciting format. We never had the facility to turn this into this kind of thing," she said. "We are grateful to the local church and business who are willing to step up."

Teresa Matthews, coordinator of youth ministry at St. Giles Parish in Oak Park, had booked a three-day camp in April for about 30 high schoolers. She is now scrambling to find another location, she said.

"It was cheaper than a lot of other retreat centers in the area," she said.

Heartbroken staff

Director Fauser, who began working as a volunteer at the camp 16 years ago, said this is a difficult time for the staff and volunteers.

"It's heartbreaking, not just for us but for all the groups that will not be able to come for the experience."

The camp employs five full-time staff members and about 20 part-time and seasonal workers, in addition to a pool of about 400 volunteers, Fauser said.

Dayna Newbold, a teacher at Prairie Grove Elementary School in Prairie Grove, said she taught outdoor education classes at Camp Algonquin when she was in college. In 2005, she was among volunteers who helped the camp prepare to host families who lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina. In August, the school district's staff took part in a team-building activity at the camp, she said.

"It's sad because (the camp) built friendships, helped people who needed help, and it's a great place to learn and teach," Newbold said.

About 10,000 people, more than half of them in school groups, visited the camp last year for daytime and overnight events including retreats and outdoor education programs, Fauser said.

The 2008 drowning tragedy did not affect camp attendance, Fauser said.

"We were doing fantastic; it was unfortunate that the Y was not," she said. "(Keeping the camp open) was just not part of the strategic plan; they are running so many camps."

Saying goodbye

A reunion and farewell event featuring current and former staff and counselors, as well as past visiting groups, is planned from 12:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 13, at Camp Algonquin, 1889 Cary Road, Algonquin.

The Beatles Ensemble from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music will perform. The event will be open to the public.