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Updated: July 13, 2020 Focus on Augusta / Waterville / Central Maine

Not-so-happy camping, but some Maine businesses keep economic embers burning

Photo / Tim Greenway Christa Johnson, director of development at Snow Pond Center for the Arts, left, and Kim Wiggin, director of the New England Music Camp.

Any Maine summer camp brochure will tell you that the weeks spent at camp are magical. The numbers are magical, too. Maine’s summer camps, many more than a century old, have grown into a $200 million industry, with more than 150 camps, drawing 40,000 campers and 12,000 employees.

This year only 24 camps are open or plan to open, many of them day camps. The numbers are still being compiled, says Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, but the economic hit will be hard. “It’s going to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says.

The loss isn’t just to camps, some of which charge tuitions in five figures, but to businesses, particularly the hotels and inns that are overrun on parents weekend in July.

Camps that are opening have to follow social distancing and health guidelines that mean fewer campers, but extra staff and costs.

Putting the camp to work

“We couldn’t have done it,” says Norm Thombs, executive director of Camp Mechuwana, a United Methodist camp on Annabessacook Lake, in Winthrop. “Even if we could possibly have pulled it off, economically, we would’ve taken a beating.”

About 25 miles north, in Sidney, New England Music Camp officials came to the same conclusion. “We started in March, hoping, as everyone else was, that we’d be OK by June,” says Christa Johnson, development director for Snow Pond Center for the Arts, which operates the camp.

When the reality of the situation became clear, it stunned them. “We realized, for the first time in 84 years, there wouldn’t be a New England Music Camp,” she says.

Like a smattering of other camps across the state, operators of the two camps looked at what they had — kitchens, open space, potential staff — and decided even if they can’t be camps this year, they can be something.

‘It blew up’

New England Music Camp opened in 1936 and draws young musicians from around the globe to the shore of Messalonskee Lake on 40 acres in between Augusta and Waterville.

The staff includes music teachers, and free concerts throughout July and August at the historic Bowl in the Pines amphitheater draw an audience from around the region.

Chef Tim Morin had been hired to cook for the camp shortly before the pandemic hit. In March, once schools shut down, he started cooking for Snow Pond’s “buy a meal, give a meal” program to help provide meals to the South End Teen Center in Waterville and the Augusta Boys & Girls Club. That evolved into an outdoor weekend restaurant as the weeks went by. They added five docks, and started drawing customers from around the lake.

During an April Zoom meeting, buoyed by the restaurant success, staff brainstormed about what else they could do. Someone suggested renting out the 42 cabins typically used by campers.

The cabins vary in age and come in one- to three-bedroom configurations, with living rooms and a bathroom. It would be kind of a low-key rustic resort that would follow the state’s COVID-19 checklist for lodging businesses.

Photo / Tim Greenway
These cabins are available at Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney.

There was no marketing plan, and few expectations. Once things were set, an email blast went out to the organization’s mailing list. “It just blew up,” says Johnson. “We didn’t think it through, that the alumni would go nuts for it.”

It turns out all those people who’d loved the camp as kids, and who’d been cooped up in New York City apartments and similar places since March, longed for that magic.

The cabins are 70% booked for July, and August is picking up, still with no marketing. About half of the guests are former campers.

The campers are happy to comply with social distancing and mask-wearing procedures, and there haven’t been issues with them getting COVID-19 tests in their home state before coming, Wiggin and Johnson say. “The only question was about wi-fi,” says Wiggin.

That’s not a problem. The campus, which also is home to the Maine Arts Academy, is fully wired.

Campers are happy to relax by the lake, enjoy the restaurant, canoe, kayak and frequent the open-air tiki bar on the lodge roof, which serves ice cream and drinks.

A different kind of summer

In Winthrop, Mechuwana is having a different kind of summer. When schools shut down in March, some in the area couldn’t continue the federal lunch program. Thombs connected with the state, and within two days was set up to take over.

Mechuwana, which mostly draws from Maine, has many low- to middle-income campers who qualify for the school lunch program, so Thombs was already familiar with it.

Mechuwana began making meals for Monmouth and Winthrop kids daily. It soon became clear camp wouldn’t open for the summer, so he decided to extend the program through August. It has since taken on weekend meals for Vienna and New Sharon, as well as Salem, a 90-minute one-way drive.

Thombs started out using volunteer help. “But I knew that wasn’t going to be sustainable.”

Meanwhile, some of the young adults who would have been working as counselors were home from college because of the COVID-19 shutdown. Like the New England Music Camp, kids who went to Mechuwana have a big place in their heart for the place they spent their magical summers.

Thombs has hired a staff of nine, many of them former campers, who quarantined at the camp for 14 days so they could work. They are making and delivering hundreds of meals a week — 9,480 in May and even more in June.

21st-century solutions

Maine’s summer camp tradition goes way back. More than 20 camps in the state are more than a century old. But Hall, of Maine Summer Camps, says this year’s situation calls for 21st century solutions.

The two central Maine camps are among a handful that are doing something new.

Camp Kiev and Wavus, in Jefferson, helped form the new Lincoln County Food Initiative, which is making and delivering meals to seniors.

Bryant Pond 4-H Camp, in Oxford County, has a variety of programs, including field kits for things like bird watching and fishing that families can borrow.

Many closed camps are offering online programs or hosting families of campers.

Hall is also talking to the Department of Education about providing outdoor space for schools when they start up again in the fall.

And some solutions go beyond kids. Seth Rigoletti, a Portland-based corporate leadership coach, is in the early stages of putting together a retreat option, linking businesses with camps.

The program would provide business for empty camps, and also be a win for businesses, which are feeling their own anxiety. “One of the most consistent questions is ‘How do we stay connected?’” he says. The ability to get together and brainstorm is largely lost with virtual meetings. Many feel they have to be together in a room to work like that. “But how can they be in a room and be safe?”

He says, “We have to balance both and use whatever assets we have.”

Camps are the perfect space — big areas, big indoor space or covered pavilions, no one else around.

He’s looking at ones that are within an hour of Portland, would have someone on the grounds to help out and possibly provide food. “This is in the wheelhouse of many, many camps,” he says.

He hopes the idea catches on with people outside of his circle, and that both camps and businesses looking for space will be entrepreneurial. “We all have to try to think of ways to help each other out and stay afloat.”

‘The power of camp’

The solutions aren’t economically perfect, those at Mechuwana and New England Music Camp say. But they’re a way to sustain the business and keep community alive. Both say a vaccine will be necessary to allow things to get back to something close to normal.

The pain is deeper than economic. “The kids are really missing it. It’s a big part of their lives,” Thombs says.

The Payroll Protection Program, federal meals program funding and donations “help keep us open,” he says. Still, “We’re able to provide summer jobs for a few people,” he says, and provide meals for hundreds of families.

New England Music Camp, between cabin rentals, the restaurant, and also with PPP help, “is sustaining,” Johnson says. “We have not had to let anyone go, but we have had to shift into roles we’re not accustomed to,” she says. “Everyone’s been great. People are happy to have jobs.”

“We’ve been lucky,” Wiggin adds. “Things could have been very different.”

There are silver linings. The camp always wanted to add a restaurant, but never had time. A $6.5 million Bowl in the Pines upgrade will be completed this year now that work can continue through the summer.

Thombs, too, sees a silver lining, one that goes back to the magic of camp. “It’s very special to see these young adults stepping up and helping people,” he says of his staff. “They’re making a difference. That’s the power of camp.”

Courtesy of Mechuwana

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