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Historic Camp Arroyo Grande for sale

A short history of the 132-year-old Camp Arroyo Grande

The 132-year-old Camp Arroyo Grande has been in limbo for the past year, while California-Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (Cal-Pac) attempts to sell the property that has been home to numerous summer camps and school activ
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The 132-year-old Camp Arroyo Grande has been in limbo for the past year, while California-Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (Cal-Pac) attempts to sell the property that has been home to numerous summer camps and school activ

For more than 130 years, people have ventured to Camp Arroyo Grande in the heart of The Village for summer and day camps, church retreats, school projects, sports training, swim lessons and a multitude of other local activities.

But now the 29-acre property, owned by the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (Cal-Pac), is up for sale, worrying some who say the campground and its unique 12-sided barn, known as the Tabernacle, could be demolished to make way for housing, businesses or other developments.

To try to prevent that, several concerned citizens have stepped forward to launch a “Save Camp Arroyo Grande” movement, aimed at preserving the campground.

So what is happening is history is for sale.

Kenneth Miles, Camp Fire Central Coast Executive Director

“What’s happening is history is for sale,” said Camp Fire Central Coast Executive Director Kenneth Miles. Camp Fire has annually held a weeklong day camp at the property for the past 50 years.

“We are very concerned about the historic beauty of particularly this beautiful building (the Tabernacle), and we want it to be preserved and to be able to share it with the whole community,” he said.

In an emailed statement to The Tribune, Cal-Pac Director of Communications James Kang said the decision to sell the property was made because of “reduced use and ongoing maintenance costs” at the site.

“In 2015, we developed a comprehensive strategic plan for our camp and retreat ministries that focuses on enhancing these ministries through the sale of three campsites,” he said. “Arroyo Grande was one of the sites selected for sale because its reduced use and ongoing maintenance costs present a growing financial hardship.

“We remain committed to providing life-giving camp and retreat ministries throughout our entire region, encompassing all of Southern California, parts of the Central Coast, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan.”

Kang declined to comment further on the cost of operating the campground or other details about the decision to sell the property.

Cal-Pac owns six other campsites in Southern California: Pacific Palisades, Julian, Angeles National Forest, San Juan Capistrano and Wrightwood. The organization was in the process of selling its Camp Cisquito near Santa Clarita in May, though the status of that deal is unknown.

Last year, the church organization successfully sold a second camp in Angeles National Forest, Camp Sturtevant, as part of its proposal to reduce costs. The site is still a campground, now owned by the nonprofit group Friends of the San Gabriels after a “silent benefactor” made it possible for the group to purchase the property, according to its website.

Miles is hoping something similar could happen with Camp Arroyo Grande.

In a tour of Camp Arroyo Grande this week, Miles recounted some stories he’s heard about the campsite: from a local football coach recalling the time he threw up in the pool while he was still a student-athlete, to a group of high school girls who painted and landscaped one of the main buildings in one day and left cheering as their school bus drove away.

Among Miles’ favorite places on the property is the Tabernacle. That building was designed by a Russian architect and built in 1897, at the request of notable Arroyo Grande resident John F. Beckett (Beckett also donated a majority of the land on which the campground rests).

It was also the site of the Chautauquas, an adult education movement started in the 1880s in New York, similar to today’s Ted Talks.

The Arroyo Grande Historic Resources Committee attempted in July to declare the property a local historic resource, which would restrict future changes to the site. Cal-Pac refused the designation (religious organizations are allowed to decline to have their assets declared as historic sites).

That puts the future of the Tabernacle at risk, Miles said.

“I know once the community knows what they are about to lose, that we can rally local support,” he said. “If people are willing to rally behind an eight-sided barn in San Luis Obispo, hopefully they will be willing to rally behind a 12-sided one.”

Miles has approached nonprofit agencies such as the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County to coordinate efforts to preserve the campground, though he said the estimated cost — between $3 million and $4 million — could make it difficult to raise enough to purchase the property outright.

“I’ve spoken to some financial folks, and they said ‘$4 million, for the Five Cities, is probably too much to raise,’ ” he said. “They said, ‘$1.5 million, you could raise that.’ That’s why we need the Land Conservancy and federal or state dollars, to see if we can get it started. Get half of it — get two-thirds of it — then have locals jump in and raise the rest.”

Camp Fire has also offered to maintain the property at its own expense if efforts to purchase the site are successful, he said.

Miles said he hopes the city will get involved in the efforts to save the camp.

Several concerned residents have spoken at City Council meetings in the months since Cal-Pac announced it intended to sell the campground, asking for the city to help find ways to preserve it, whether by contributing funds or helping to secure other funding sources to purchase the site.

“We’re going to keep the pressure on the City Council to take some sort of lead to find some creative solutions,” Miles said. “The most urgent thing is this is a year of elections. Hold our city officials and, maybe, county officials accountable. Keep their feet to the fire to sort of come up with some solutions.”

As for what the property could be used for, Miles said he envisions updates to the campground such as picnic tables and a small park, improvements to the facilities and expanding its use to local schools, nonprofits and other groups.

“We hope that it will be an open space for all of the Central Coast to be able to use in the future, and not a housing project or some other thing where it would restrict us from being able to come up to the property.”

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

To get involved:

For more information on the effort to “Save Camp Arroyo Grande,” visit the group’s Facebook page at www.bit.ly/2cW4bsJ or contact Kenneth Miles at 805-773-5126 or campfirekm@yahoo.com.

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