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Girl Scouts closing popular camp in Walworth County
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Girl Scouts closing popular camp in Walworth County

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TOWN OF LAGRANGE — Girl Scout leaders and parents are objecting to plans for closing a Walworth County camp where generations of scouts have spent their summers having fun and growing up.

The parent organization Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast has announced plans to close Camp Pottawatomie Hills and to put the entire 120-acre property up for sale.

Located on Pleasant Lake in the town of LaGrange just west of East Troy, the camp serves hundreds of girls a year with its cabins, campgrounds and facilities for picnicking, canoeing, hiking and other activities.

Girl Scout officials say closing Camp Potawatomie Hills is part of a strategy to save money and streamline camping at other camps to better serve the scouting community.

Parents and others upset about losing a treasured summer retreat have created a group called Save Our Camps to try reversing the plan to sell Camp Pottawatomie Hills and a second property closer to Milwaukee.

“Camp is more than a place,” parent and leader Beth Hahn said. “We loved it. And it was home.”

More than 100 people have joined the Save Our Camps group, asking officials to reconsider the closure decision — or at least to give troops one more summer at their favorite camp.

Kathryn Sowinski, an organizer of the group, said she and her supporters are not trying to undermine the Girl Scouts organization, but only to encourage officials to consider alternatives.

“We don’t want to fight Girl Scouts,” Sowinski said. “We are Girl Scouts.”

Based in Milwaukee, the Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast includes more than 20,000 members in an area that extends from Kenosha County north to Washington County and as far west as approximately Burlington.

Groups from that region ride buses to Camp Pottawatomie Hills every week during the summer, usually 100 to 400 girls at a time, primarily for day camp.

The organization owns five other camps, including an overnight resident camp just outside East Troy called Camp Alice Chester.

Girls scouts in Lake Geneva and the immediate surrounding area are part of a different organization, the Madison-based Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Badgerland, which serves about 8,000 members.

That organization operates four of its own camps, none of which are being closed. But the closest of those four camps is in Dane County.

Camps also are open to visiting scouts, so scouts from Lake Geneva are welcomed, too, at Camp Pottawatomie Hills.

“Girls love to camp, absolutely,” Badgerland group spokeswoman Christy Gibbs said. “Girls are not limited by their home town.”

Officials at the Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast announced last month that they were closing and offering for sale both Camp Pottawatomie Hills and Camp Winding River just northwest of Milwaukee in Dodge County.

Officials said the decision came after lengthy consideration and a survey of 3,400 members that signaled support for updating the Girl Scout camp experience. The announcement described a future with fewer camp locations as “a sustainable financial model.”

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Christy Brown, chief executive of the Milwaukee-based organization, said camp attendance is down overall in recent years, and officials believe consolidating with fewer camps makes sense financially and organizationally.

“We are financially stable,” she said, “and we intend to stay that way.”

Brown said any potential buyers of the 120-acre Camp Pottawatomie Hills will be encouraged to consider conservation rather than redevelopment. But the property has not been listed for sale yet, and no one is sure what kind of offers will materialize.

In the meantime, officials are trying to decide whether to redirect Camp Pottawatomie Hills campers to Camp Alice Chester or to somewhere else. Wherever the displaced campers go, Brown said, efforts will be made to ensure that the new site lives up to their expectations.

“All the camps are beautiful,” she said. “We’re excited about the future. I know there’s a lot of angst. But it’s going to be great.”

Some longtime scout members and supporters say they understand the business decisions behind the loss of Camp Pottawatomie Hills.

Dana Zwick, who attended the camp as a child and remains an adult volunteer every summer, said that while she will miss the place, she is sympathetic toward administrators trying to keep the organization fiscally solvent.

Zwick said she just wishes there had been more collaboration with parents and volunteers on the closure decision.

“I’m not super-excited about the way it was handled,” she said. “But I have no reason to believe the Girl Scouts isn’t making decisions that are in our best interests.”

For some, the pain of losing Camp Pottawatomie Hills is overwhelming.

Sowinski said she broke down and cried when she heard the camp was closing.

As a scout herself from 1st grade through 12th grade, she visited the camp every summer. She still returns every summer as a volunteer adult leader, most recently bringing her own twin 4-year-old daughters along.

In addition to the volunteer-run day camps, the property hosts staff-run paid camps.

Through such activities as canoeing, woodworking and Tae kwon do, girls learn to push themselves and assert themselves. Along the way, Sowinski said, they forge bonds with one another as friends — and with the camp itself as special place in their lives.

“It’s kind of like a beloved family property that you visit every summer,” she said.

Zwick agreed, saying she worries that once Camp Pottawatomie Hill is gone, she worries that future Girl Scouts will not get as much out of camp.

“There’s just something,” she said, “that comes with knowing a place like the back of your hand.”

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