By Reggie Connell
At a special meeting Wednesday night, the Apopka City Council came to a consensus to move forward in the process of purchasing Camp Wewa from the YMCA. Although no vote was taken, the Council gave its conditional approval to continue the due diligence by City staff.
According to its website, Camp Wewa has been in existence for more than 70 years and provided a safe and exciting experience for thousands of campers ages 8–17. However, in 2020, Camp Wewa fell on hard times in the midst of the pandemic.
“Due to the uniquely immersive resident camp experience and the prolonged financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Y is carefully evaluating feasible options for Camp Wewa as part of our commitment to best serve our community and maintain the safety of all in our care,” the YMCA said in its statement.
The option it finally arrived at was selling the property.
“Three weeks ago, I got a call from the YMCA about this property,” said Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson. “It was basically a courtesy call to let us know they were going to sell the property to a developer and thought I would want to know. I just said wow. Having been there I knew how amazing this property was. I asked them to give us a couple of weeks to do our due diligence and maybe we can come up with a plan to purchase.”
According to the presentation by Nelson at the meeting, Camp Wewa is 70 acres, 39.5 of which are developable. It has four campsites, enough cabins to hold 160 people, and a dining hall that can accommodate about 100.
The estimated value of the property is $5 million.
Costs to upgrade the property to ADA compliance, convert well water to city water, and change its septic system to sewer would cost approximately $250,000, plus an additional $150,000 in improvements, according to an estimate by City staff.
“Keep in mind you have about $800,000 in impact fees that you can use,” said City Administrator Edward Bass. “You can put up the other properties for sale (including the Sandpiper property valued at $1.2 million).”
The City is also in the process of applying for a grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, but Bass cautioned about its timing.
“We won’t know about the grant,” said Bass. “It takes some time for that to come back. What we could do is use some of the other parcels coming in as income, and then you also front some for reserves and reimburse yourselves from the sale.”
But before Commissioner Diane Velazquez was ready to celebrate, she wanted assurances as to the costs both upfront and in the future.
“Not only do you have the purchase price, but you have the costs of ADA compliance, sewer, city water, and then you have to staff it. Everyone wants it, but I have to cover all the bases. We have a really tight budget. We weren’t able to give any raises. This is a huge park to put on our recreation staff right now.”
“We haven’t stopped our raises,” said Bass in response. “We’ve gone down to 3%, but we haven’t stopped them. But this is something that if you acquire the property you get the asset. I think you have to build it into your budget. You’re correct, we would have to have some staff, but you could build that into your budget going forward. But the park is operational now. The capital improvements could be made over a 3-5 year period.”
“I’d love to have summer camp up and running,” added Nelson.
“I see this as amenities for our youth, but my concern is transportation… getting the kids there,” said Commissioner Alexander H. Smith. “I think this could be a great asset for us if we can solve the transportation issue.”
Commissioner Kyle Becker also saw the upside, but like Velazquez also wanted assurances it would not cost the City lost taxpayer dollars for years to come.
“When you think about brand alignment with Camp Wewa and the City of Apopka, I don’t think there’s much argument there. It goes together because we have such a focus on eco-tourism. The springs, Lake Apopka, the Wildlife Drive… all these things kind of play together. But to piggyback on what Commissioner Velazquez said, going into this I thought it would be kind of an even exchange. We would find the sourcing without having to go through anything else to do it. What I would like to see going forward is a pro forma in order to keep this at a break-even point. How, over the next 3-5 years, we can keep this basically neutral, because rightfully so, there are other departments in the City that look at this skeptically who can say ‘look, we’ve got deteriorating facilities, an old fleet.’ If we just add another asset, and it becomes a pit, then we’re in a bad spot. So I want to be comfortable that we’re able to sustain it. I think we are all there, I just want to see it in print.”
Commissioner Doug Bankson has made a name for himself on the commission as a fiscal budget hawk. During many discussions, he has called for reserves higher than even the state guidelines suggest. But in this case, Bankson too saw the upside in acquiring Camp Wewa.
“It goes back to ‘what is our brand?’ Lake Apopka used to be one of the best fishing lakes nationwide, and then we lost that, but now it’s coming back. The trend is greenspace, ecology… you have the birding… tie this together and it’s something that can’t be reproduced. You’ve heard me harp on (budget) reserves. But this is the reason why. It puts us in a position to act. I think this is a tremendous opportunity. And if we do this right, we’re going to be the number one destination for green tourism.”
“Three years ago, we couldn’t have done this,” said Nelson. “But because of the financial shape we are in, we can use reserves, or borrow the money, we’ve got ways of doing it because of the shape we’re in.”
“We’re in uncharted territories,” said Bass. This is new to us. This is something we have an opportunity to take on and I think the key is going to be to look for all the grant opportunities available, partnering, and working with the Chamber. We can all work together.”