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Summer Camp Re-Imagined

Supported by construction and design firms across the state, a $10.5 million expansion is under way in “God’s backyard” — the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama’s Camp McDowell, in Winston County.

An old-fashioned barn raising in October kicked off the $10.5 million expansion of Camp McDowell, an Episcopal camp and conference center in north Alabama.

An old-fashioned barn raising in October kicked off the $10.5 million expansion of Camp McDowell, an Episcopal camp and conference center in north Alabama.

Photos by the Rev. Deacon Dave Drachlis

Camp McDowell, under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, has begun a $10.5 million construction project that will allow it to provide perhaps the most innovative public programming of any camp in Alabama.

The camp and conference center at the southern edge of the William B. Bankhead National Forest in North Alabama’s Winston County is set on 1,140 acres, including woodlands with trails past sandstone canyons and picturesque waterfalls.

“It’s a special place that allows people to reconnect to nature, which, unfortunately, we’ve become so disconnected from in the modern world,” says the Rev. Mark Johnston, who has served as the camp’s executive director for the past 23 years.

The popular camp, affectionately called “God’s backyard,” has long been known for environmental programs and other offerings that touch the lives of members of its home diocese, which extends from Montgomery to the Tennessee state line, as well as thousands of other children and adults across the state and beyond.

In addition to conferences for nonprofit and business groups, team-building activities, events and youth summer camps, Camp McDowell hosts an Environmental Center school for sixth graders across Alabama and neighboring states, the Alabama Folk School for adults and a summer camp for adults and young people with special needs. More than 120,000 students have benefitted from Environmental Center programming alone.

While the camp’s roots go back to the 1920s, the current location was purchased in 1947. Most of the camp’s current facilities were built in the 1960s. “We’ve tried to make the most of what we have over the years, and have modified our facilities, but construction practices were different back then and accessibility was limited,” Johnston says.

Volunteer Janice Glor watches over a budding carpenter and her two-fisted hammering style. 

Now, thanks to the leadership of the Rt. Rev. John McKee Sloan, bishop diocesan, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, and Johnston, in addition to the the efforts and support of a multitude of others, the camp is undergoing a major expansion. A new highly accessible and environmentally friendly camp and conference area called Bethany is being created and several existing facilities updated. 

Forty new buildings, many specifically designed for universal access, are to be built in Bethany over 18 months. Construction is expected to be complete around the middle of 2015. Universal access features will include a zero entry pool, which will complement the camp’s existing Olympic-size outdoor pool, as well as an accessible lakeside dock and trails. The innovative addition will allow for expanded special needs programming, additional conference space, a home for the camp’s Alabama Folk School, a performance center, and facilities for a brand new Farm School for fifth graders. Classes for three-day Farm School sessions will begin in September.

Sloan, who has led a week-long special-needs camp for adults and young people during the summer at Camp McDowell since the late 1990s, envisioned expanding the program and providing housing better designed for those with physical challenges. “When I first approached Mark Johnston, who I knew from divinity school, many years ago, about the idea of a special needs camp I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t try to discourage me, but thought it was a great idea and helped me get it going,” Sloan says.

The bishop is an ardent advocate for special needs camps, not only for how they minister to those with physical and mental challenges, but also for the positive influence it has on the numerous high-school-age volunteers who work with the programs. “I worked at such a camp when I was a teenager, and it changed my life. Over the years, I have seen so many young people transformed by the experience of helping others,” Sloan says.

The Bethany expansion will include the use of geothermal, wind and solar energy technology and expand the use of recycling and biofuels at the camp. “It will provide so many additional opportunities for learning for the student in our environmental school,” Johnston says.

The camp’s $7.5 million capital campaign, led by Rev. Rich Webster and Birmingham business leader Ricky Bromberg, with the assistance of fund-raising consultant Pam Parker, retired development director of the University of Alabama, has raised more than $5 million in pledges so far. “I had never worked on fundraising before. It’s been fun, and a blessing,” Bromberg says. “Everyone I’ve spoken with about this has responded so positively.”

Fundraising efforts began with a small group of major donors, but now are focused on the various parishes in the diocese. Opportunities for naming new camp lodges and other facilities are available. Bromberg gives much of the credit for the success of the campaign to consultant Parker. “This is the kind of project everyone is happy to be a part of because it will touch so many lives,” Bromberg says.

Camp board member Melissa Strange, a department member who also works in development at the Alyce Stephens Center, has found fundraising for the project to be an uplifting experience. “Bethany is the place where Jesus’ friends lived and the vision for Bethany is inspiring many to give.”

Camp director, the Rev. Mark Johnston, shows progress on the camp’s new barn.

Photo by Kathy Hagood

Beyond fundraising, an additional $1.6 million has been made available upfront for the Bethany project thanks to federal and state New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) programs. NMTC, enacted as part of the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000, are designed to spur projects that add jobs in low-income areas. The program helps provide low-cost financing by giving lenders tax credits over seven years for helping fund NMTC projects. “One of the great things about the New Market Tax Credits program is that it provided money for construction on the project to get going sooner,” says Rob Morpeth, finance officer for the diocese.

Although the NMTC program is a complicated process that requires a lot of paperwork, a number of volunteers helped with the application. Jodie Smith, of Maynard Cooper, for example, donated many hours to help get NMTC funding, and Brad Dethero, of Geo-Source Inc., donated the environmental report needed for the program.

Bethany is being built with Camp McDowell’s “waste not, want not” philosophy, with the recycling of as many construction materials as possible and with plenty of volunteer design and construction services and materials. “You don’t see dumpsters with a large amount of construction waste here. We recycle as much as possible,” Johnston says.

Construction Manager Ingram Thornton left his job at a large construction firm to work on Bethany after he learned his wife was to give birth to a special needs child. “So many people have been inspired by what we’re trying to do here that they’ve gone the extra mile to help us,” Johnston says.

Architects who have donated design work to the project include Ken Traweek, Joel Blackstock of Williams Blackstock and John Poole of Poole and Co. Landscape architecture is being provided by William Johnson of Johnson & Co. Volunteer civil engineers for the project include Steven Speaks with Larry E. Speaks and Frazier Christi.

Among suppliers helping with the project are Darby Doors of Florence, which is donating all Bethany’s doors and windows. Larry Brudi of Johnstone Supply is helping to get HVAC at or below cost. Mid-South Lumber Co. is helping get the camp lumber at reduced prices.

Land clearing and other first construction efforts for Bethany began in late summer and early fall. Grading the land for the project, which includes a 42-foot deep, 5.2-acre lake, construction of a barn for the Farm School and other structures has generated a number of subcontractor jobs in the local area. “The construction workers from this area really appreciate the job opportunities,” Johnston says.

Camp officials expect a big increase in permanent and seasonal jobs when Bethany opens. Moreover, says Johnston, “We’re hoping the expansion will build demand for what we offer even more so we can continue to increase our employment over time.”

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

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