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Camp Esquagama investment spurs accreditation

Camp Esquagama, which is owned by St. Louis County, has added five winterized camper cabins in recent years, opening the camp near Biwabik, Minn., to year-round use. Photo courtesy Camp Esquagama.1 / 3
Camp Esquagama, pictured here in 2010, has more than doubled the number of summer youth campers over the past five years after St. Louis County invested millions of dollars into the 1935 vintage former 4-H camp. Forum News Service file photo2 / 3
The main lodge at Camp Esquagama, built in 1935, has undergone extensive renovations and updates thanks to a major infusion of cash from St. Louis County, Minn., which owns the property. The camp is now open year-round, drawing ski groups in winter months. Photo courtesy Camp Esquagama.3 / 3

BIWABIK, Minn. — The old 4-H camp on Lake Esquagama was wearing out and running down just a few years ago, with fewer campers each summer and a historic lodge in disrepair.

The youth camp south of Biwabik was looking every bit like it was built in 1935 as it fell victim to a national trend away from traditional summer youth camps as families opted for specialty camps for sports, computers or music.

But St. Louis County never gave up on the camp it owns, instead pumping millions of dollars into the place over the last five years in an effort that appears to have paid off.

Summer attendance at Camp Esquagama has more than doubled, from 243 kid campers five years ago to 508 this summer.

The camp's main lodge, on the National Register of Historic Places, has been refurbished, re-roofed, brought up to fire- and electric-safety codes and winterized, with five year-round camper cabins added on the grounds.

And last week Camp Esquagama announced it has, for the first time in its 82 year history, received formal accreditation from the American Camp Association, a prestigious seal of approval from the national group. The ACA accredits some 2,400 camps nationally that must meet up to 300 health and safety standards for both facilities and programs.

"It's huge for us to have accreditation. It took a lot of effort to get there but it's worth it," said Steve Popowitz, Camp Esquagama's executive director since 2011.

The camp is owned by the county but its operations are overseen by Arrowhead Center, a Virginia, Minn.-based social services provider, under a 2013 contract with the county that runs through 2032.

According to data from the county's Property Management Division and County Administrator Kevin Gray, the county has annually subsidized camp operating costs since at least 1992 and in recent years has upped the ante — from $54,000 in 2010 to $167,208 this year. The county board is expected to approve its 2018 budget today that includes $197,000 for the camp.

The county also paid for more than $2.5 million in capital improvements over the past five years, paying for all new utilities — including a septic system, well, water lines and electric lines and wiring — in addition to refurbishing the lodge and building cabins. (Campers previously slept on the second floor of the main lodge which is now prohibited under fire codes.)

Popowitz, who will give a report on the camp's progress at today's county board meeting in Duluth, said the smiles on campers' faces show St. Louis County taxpayers got their money's worth, "and then some."

"It's been really great to see this place evolve into something special again," he said. "Five years ago the county had a choice. They could either close the camp, because it wasn't safe any more, or invest in it. ... I think they made the right choice."

St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township has led the effort to invest in the camp despite some past criticism that a youth camp wasn't part of the county's core mission like roads, social services and the Sheriff's Office.

"Restoring Camp Esquagama has been vital to the community and to children and youth throughout St. Louis County who, now more than ever, need a place to go to experience nature, build relationships and a love for the Iron Range," Nelson said in a statement.

Popowitz predicts renewed demand for Camp Esquagama-like experiences "where kids can go be kids for a week. No electronics. No parents. Just kids outside having fun," he said. "It's great to see kids singing songs together in the dining hall or around a campfire."

Popowitz, of Willow River, said this year's campers included 44 foster children from within St. Louis County. Another 59 county resident campers received scholarships. He estimates about 75 percent of the campers are from within the county, namely Duluth and the Iron Range.

This summer the camp started a weeklong day camp that proved popular with east Range families, Popowitz said, and the camp is now expanding into winter use. The Denfeld Nordic ski team will stay there next week while skiing at Giants Ridge, just seven miles away. Other ski and church groups have booked lodging in coming weeks.

"Our goal now is to keep this place busy between September and May, and we're starting to do that. We have a link on Giants Ridge' website (and vice versa). We're the perfect place for youth groups and school groups to stay on their ski trips." Popowitz said.

The camp, about 60 miles north of Duluth on County Highway 4, also has added an indoor climbing wall, gaga pit (like dodgeball — ask your kids) and a camper-run radio station in the past few years to accompany traditional activities like swimming, canoeing, boat rides, riflery, archery, crafts, hikes, bonfires, saunas and crafts.

Camp Esquagama was founded in 1935 after several 4-H Clubs across St. Louis County won a national contest sponsored by Sears Roebuck that came with a $10,000 prize. That prize money, along with 42 acres of donated land and logs donated by the Oliver Mining Co., spurred construction of the elaborate lodge building with its six-sided roofline and massive stone fireplace. The lodge is shaped like an arrow, 120 feet long and 80 feet wide. It overlooks a stone amphitheater and swimming beach on Lake Esquagama — a word that, loosely translated from Ojibwe, means "last lake on the chain of lakes" along the Embarrass River. An average week at summer camp is about $425, with scholarships available.

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