A consolidation of Boy Scout councils in the Northwest and West suburbs with those in Chicago and Northwest Indiana is being proposed to help stem the tide of declining membership and donations, though the effect of the merger on local Scout troops remains less clear.
Officials at the Boy Scouts of America's headquarters in Irving, Texas, have announced they're considering restructuring four local councils -- the Northwest Suburban Council, headquartered in Mount Prospect; the Des Plaines Valley Council, headquartered in La Grange; the Chicago Area Council, headquartered in Chicago; and the Calumet Council, headquartered in Munster, Indiana -- into one. There's also separate merger discussions between staff members at the Des Plaines Valley Council and the Three Fires Council, based in St. Charles. The Northeast Illinois Council, headquartered in Highland Park, was involved in consolidation discussions, but officials there decided to withdraw from those talks.
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Officials say bringing the local councils together will make the delivery of programs to local youth more efficient and sustainable, though it's unclear at this point what that means for the future of Scout campsites owned by the individual councils, whether any existing council offices will close, or if there will be staffing reductions at those offices.
Matt Thornton, the acting scout executive of the four councils that may be consolidated, said a decision on potential new council structures will be made by the end of June. A new mega-council could be in place by Jan. 1, 2015.
"For more than 100 years, the Boy Scouts of America has made a positive difference in the lives of young people in the greater Chicago area," Thornton said in a statement issued through the national Scout office. "The primary reason to examine the existing structure is to evaluate the existing geographical council boundaries, which were drawn many decades ago, to see if Scouting is being delivered in the most efficient way to serve local units, as well as to take advantage of new opportunities to reach more families."
The discussions now taking place among Boy Scout officials are similar to those six years ago by leaders of the Girl Scouts of America, which consolidated some 300 councils into 112 councils. The Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana council is comprised of seven formerly separate councils.
"It's no different than what all the corporations are doing right now," said Nancy Wright, the Girl Scout council's CEO. "Everybody's facing the same challenges of how to look at the marketplace they service and the business model to be more effective, add value, be more innovative and be more nimble."
Dave Shepherd, president of the Northwest Suburban Boy Scout Council, called the proposed consolidation "a positive move," though he declined to discuss it until national and regional Scouting officials solidify their plans in the coming weeks.
"We can always use improvement," Shepherd said. "There's lots of reasons (to consolidate). They're all positive."
Thorton said the Scouting experience wouldn't change, and officials are working "to ensure a seamless transition for our Scouts, parents, leaders and local volunteers."
Local Scout troop leaders say they aren't privy to the discussions taking place on the regional and national levels, but many also maintain the merger won't have any immediate effect on their individual programs.
"I don't think for us or for any of the units in the area the consolidation process will change how any of us deliver programs on a daily basis," said Chris Sprague, Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 401 in Buffalo Grove. "Anything we can do to do better for the guys is good."
Troop 401 hosts weekly meetings in the Kingswood United Methodist Church gym, where Scouts plan monthly outings such as campouts and skiing trips. Every year troop members attend a "high adventure" outing, such as a trip to the Florida Sea Base. There's some 35 Boy Scouts in the troop -- an ideal number, Sprague said.
Some troops, though, don't have the same level of participation -- a story reflected in Boy Scouting's nationwide membership numbers. The national organization released its latest participation numbers earlier this year, showing a 6 percent decline from 2012 to 2013 on top of a 4 percent drop the year before.
There's some 2.5 million registered youths in Scouting -- from Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts and Webelos, to Boy Scouts, Varsity Scouts and Venturers. About 1 million adults are registered as leaders.
Membership numbers weren't available for suburban councils, but the Chicago Area Council reported an increase of 87 people to 9,727 in 2012 in its annual reports.
Scout officials say some 25,000 youth are currently registered within the four councils being proposed for consolidation.
Much of Scouting's recruitment efforts focuses on Cub Scouting, intended for children in first through fifth grades. Participation in Cub Scouts bodes well for a strong Boy Scout program, which is intended for those in sixth grade up to age 18.
Local councils have relied upon traditional methods to recruit new members -- handing out fliers and doing meet-and-greets at elementary schools that allow recruiting, and hosting membership nights for families. But the Scouts are also finding new ways to grab kids' attention, trying to lure new members by hosting family science nights, featuring experiment demonstrations -- and the opportunity for families to sign their boys up for membership.
"The idea is hopefully you're exposed to what Scouting has to offer," said Mike Hale, executive of the Northeast Illinois Council. "We're heavy into science and technology -- in addition to camping."
A science-inspired Scout recruitment center plans to hold a grand opening May 31 inside Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. Called the Discovery Outpost, the storefront will contain displays and videos about all Scouting activities, but much of the focus will be on Scouting's connection with science, technology, engineering and mathematics, officials said.
Though the Northwest Suburban Council plans to operate the center, officials hope other councils will benefit since those who visit the mall come from all over the region.
As membership has declined, Scout officials have explored what to do with the dozens of campsites owned by local councils.
Within the Des Plaines Valley Council, overall camp attendance was down 25 percent, according to an April 16, 2013 blog post by George Krempel, the council's president.
"The Boy Scouts have 29 camps in Wisconsin alone, far more facilities and capacity than demand requires," Krempel wrote.
Krempel declined to be interviewed until after the Boy Scouts National annual meeting concludes later this week in Nashville, Tennessee.
The local councils were required to submit proposals for possible consolidation in advance of that meeting, Krempel wrote on his council's website.
The Chicago Area Council tried to sell its Owasippe Scout Reservation in Michigan to developers in 2008 for $19 million, but the deal fell apart in a court challenge.
In an April 24 email sent to Scouts and leaders, Boy Scout officials said "the issue of land management and camp properties is not relevant to" the discussion over council consolidation.
"All Scout properties currently owned by these four councils will be owned and operated by the new council structure," according to the email. "Every decision made by our councils is based on what is in the best interest of the youth we serve."
The Northwest Suburban Council, meanwhile, is planning to downsize its office space by relocating from its current Mount Prospect headquarters to another location, said Shepherd, the council president.
The Boy Scouts, like other nonprofit organizations still trying to come out of the economic recession, has experienced a decline in contributions.
Some have suggested that bringing together the councils -- each with its own business and marketing staffs -- could streamline fundraising efforts. For instance, someone who works in downtown Chicago but lives in Arlington Heights wouldn't have to choose between two different councils to give money.
"Many times people do want to donate funds to the Boy Scouts," said Ken Jackson, Scoutmaster of Troop 188 in Palatine. "But who do they give the money to?"
A review of the four councils' 990 forms, a filing required of nonprofit organizations by the Internal Revenue Service, showed two councils -- Des Plaines Valley and Chicago Area -- were operating at a deficit in 2012, the most recent year for which financial information was publicly available.
Krempel wrote in a May 2 blog post that Des Plaines Valley ended 2013 with a balanced budget, as well as impressive growth in the number of new units.
Even before a consolidation of the four councils was proposed, officials from Des Plaines Valley and the neighboring Three Fires Council had been discussing a merger of their own, focusing on "how we might use our mutual staff, funding, and property resources more efficiently and effectively to advance Scouting in our combined geographic area," Krempel wrote.
Merger: Des Plaines Valley, Chicago Area councils had deficit in 2012