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City Council green lights pursuit of Camp Wewa purchase for Apopka

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By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

The Apopka City Council voted 5-0 in favor of pursuing the purchase of Camp Wewa from the YMCA, which has owned the property since 1947. The City is expected to make a $4.2 million offer for the 70-acre property located in Apopka on Binion Road, and an additional $3-million is expected to be paid by the City over the next five years for improvements, repairs, and operational expenses for the camp.

The property became available in January after the YMCA listed it for sale due to financial losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Three weeks ago [in January], I got a call from the YMCA about this property,” said Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson at a special February meeting to discuss Camp Wewa. “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.”

Since that meeting, Camp Wewa has been the primary topic of discussion in Apopka, and the City staff went into overdrive to take the steps to make the offer.

"A lot of work went into this business item," said Apopka City Administrator Edward Bass. "A lot of work by staff. We've worked very, very hard... put in a lot of work and a lot of hours and time."

Apopka City Commissioner Kyle Becker met the proposal with excitement, but also with questions given the amount of taxpayer dollars at stake.

"For me personally, it's a great idea," Becker said. "But during my time on Council, this is the largest and single-most expensive purchase we have discussed... so I don't take it lightly. I know there is a lot of support in the community, but I've also gotten emails and texts from people who are skeptical. I'm doing my part... my due diligence that it's well thought out and the investment is going to pay for what it's intended to do."

Commissioner Diane Velazquez, too, mixed optimism with skepticism.

"I am for Camp Wewa. I think it's a great asset. I don't want to give it to a developer. I don't want more homes. But I want the taxpayers to be on board with us... because since the last budget, we've been telling them we're trimming down. We've said a lot of things we can't do for this community, and now we're saying 'let's buy this park'."

Commissioner Doug Bankson did the fiscal math and saw advantages to the purchase both for the present and the future.

"The negative (purchase price plus operating expenses) is partly answered in that we have a gained asset. In the worst-case scenario, as long as the appraisals are accurate... we wouldn't lose $7-million. I would say we approach it in a two-tiered manner. If we don't have the support, we can always devoid ourselves of the asset. Not that I want to see just more houses. But we really have a valuable asset. We've got something that makes us a leader in the ecotourism industry. This is something unique that Apopka has that a lot of others don't have. It's one of the reasons why other businesses haven't come with higher income jobs because, what do we have to offer their employees if they move here?"

Commissioner Alexander H. Smith too saw the merits of the park as both a value and an amenity for Apopka.

"I've looked at the property and I think it's a great asset for the City. It will give us another drawing card, especially if you look at ecotourism. It's close to the wildlife trail, and the birding park. It's something we can tie into and I think it's an outstanding drawing card. I know we're not looking to make money on it, but to break-even in this kind of endeavor would be great. It will be a great investment for our city."

During his part of the presentation, Bass viewed the $7-million outlay as a transfer of services for parks and recreation in Apopka and referenced a proposed park on the Apopka Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) at Harmon Road.

"This is like trading one asset for another - it's land when you look at it from an investment standpoint. I think the other thing to keep in mind is we were going to do Harmon Road... so if we sell the Harmon Road property - we take it away and replace it with this."

Becker, however, was skeptical of that assessment and questioned Bass about its impact on the upcoming budget.

"When we talk about the Harmon Road property on the CIP, we all know that's paper money," he said. "That's not like real dollars we're taking from over there and putting it here. There are a lot of things on a CIP plan that won't get funded - or just get pushed out... so I don't want to use that. If we've got $3-million in operational and capital costs over the next five years, how can we ensure that we're able to fund the critical need items as a City? How can I have assurances that we're not being punitive to other departments and their needs? We've got several department heads in the room. You've heard from your employees. I've heard from several of your employees and they've voiced concerns about critical needs. In this room, today, do I have your confidence that we can meet critical needs while at the same time purchasing this property?"

"And what I'll say to that is that is the job of the Council," Bass responded. "We've got a general fund and you get to control how those service levels get funded based on the budgets that come forward and are presented to you. I will say that we have some of the best if not the best fire and police services around, so that tells me we've done a good job at funding those. At budget time it's a give-and-take because it comes out of one pot. And that will be the challenge as it has been every year."

Becker again pressed Bass for a more definitive answer.

"But absent just putting this back on Council to resolve it at budget time, are we putting critical needs at risk with this purchase?" Becker asked. "My very pointed question is... are we putting critical needs at risk from other parts of the City to pay for this?"

"As I stand here today, I'd say no," Bass said in response. "Our police and fire are not at risk. I think they have what they need. Will we sacrifice police and fire? No, I do not think this Council will do that. At the end of the day, everybody knows public safety comes first. So we will look at all items and make sure everything is funded the way it should be."

Nelson too wanted to make it clear what the roles of each department in the City are intended to do.

"Parks and Recreation were never meant to make money. Police and Fire were never meant to make money. The only department we have in the City of Apopka that makes money is community development. But forget all of that. The money we are given through property taxes and the like... where do we want to invest it? It's that simple. Our first responders are A-number-one. Without them, everything else goes away. We have an ISO-1 rated fire department. We added police officers, and hopefully another 10 this year. Public safety is being taken care of. I don't know how we can even say it isn't. So I'm a little frustrated that we think that we're not going to move forward in a fiscally responsible way. Since I have been here, and Edward and the team, we've reduced our indebtedness by $7-million... so we know how to operate a budget. Brian is as good as it gets in our Parks and Recreation Department... all of our department heads are... so we can make it work...it's just if you want to make it work or not."

Bass echoed Nelson's assessment, also stating the nature of annual expenditures among municipal departments.

"Budgets go up every year. Public safety budgets grow. It's number one. That's why we're here. But at the end of the day, part of our budget, part of our services is also leisure services. I think it's critical to keep that balance in mind."

"I guess the point to be made is a dollar lost is a dollar lost," Becker said in response. "It's a dollar that can't be put towards pubic safety if you lose a dollar elsewhere."

Despite the pushback, Becker remained in favor of the purchase.

"I had my concerns. I still have some concerns. But if we're saying that what we're taking won't have immediate risks to our budget to satisfy critical needs, I can get behind it. And to your point Edward, it's incumbent on us as a Council to keep the priorities in line with what they need to be during the budget process."

Nelson looked to his administration's past spending record to justify this $7-million investment in Camp Wewa.

"I think we as a City are pretty well run. The departments operate within their budgets. We know how to run the City, but what if COVID, plus, plus, plus hit us? All bets are off... and so we can't make promises. We built up the reserves over the 25% that Commissioner Bankson asked for... so the reserves are as healthy as they have ever been. The debt load is as low as it has ever been... other than the water plant, which I wasn't a part of... so we've made those hard choices along the way to get us where we are today. We've gotten ourselves in a position where we can make an offer like this."

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