February 17, 2011
Greetings and happy holidays! I hope that all of you are doing well this time of year and are getting to spend the holiday season with loved ones and friends.
Normally, toward the end of the year I would send an email to the NWBA Board of Directors detailing how things went for the Camp Hahobas Blacksmithing program this year. For example, for 2015, I’d probably mention how many hundred boys and girls came through our program during summer camp, High School JROTC weekends, and other events. I’d talk about the improvements we made to the smithy this year- installing electric lights in the building so we can work later in the evenings, particularly in the off-season, or the fact that we leased a big propane tank and ran hard lines to the building for all our forges. This is all true, and while I could go on talking about the other improvements, successes this year and generally giving a report on how things went, recent events preclude all of that and require that I give a different kind of update.
Camp Hahobas Boy Scout Camp is closing after 82 years of operation, effective immediately. The 660+ acre property is going on the market for sale (as are most of the other council properties).
The organization has been having financial difficulty for years- some due to lower attendance numbers and high operating costs, but a lot has to do with some poor decisions by previous executives about a decade ago. The short version is that they borrowed a lot of money, anticipating they would sell a particular piece of property elsewhere in the council, and they didn’t sell it. They secured the loan with an endowment fund that holds securities that have since dropped in value.
The long and short of it is that the council is about 2 million dollars in debt, and has very little cash flow. Add to this the fact that they have been operating at a loss for many years now, and they have therefore not done proper maintenance on camp property and facilities. It’s estimated that we would need to invest about 10 million on top of the debt in order to bring the camp facilities up to standards.
The national organization came through last year and did an assessment of the camp; they received a “D-“ rating for the property and facilities. It should be noted that this rating did not apply to our smithy or blacksmithing program- in fact they specifically commented that our blacksmithing program was “one of the best they had seen in the nation”, and that if we were able to improve the rest of camp, our blacksmithing program would be something that would likely draw scouts in nationwide. But that is a moot point now, as the camp itself is shutting down and being closed.
What does this mean for our blacksmithing program and volunteers? Our future is uncertain at this point- certainly the program won’t exist in its current form, since we won’t be based out of Camp Hahobas anymore. I have been talking with the other volunteers and we all agree that we want to continue the program in some manner and continue to teach blacksmithing skills to youth, even if that means going outside the scouting program.
There are a number of options available to us, and I’m currently evaluating the potential of each. One thing that seems pretty clear- we should probably not tie our fate directly to that of Pacific Harbors Council anymore. (Even if they sell the properties and get out of debt, there’s an old saying that seems to apply: “A burnt dog dreads the fire.”)
Right now we have a bit of time where we can keep storing the blacksmithing equipment at camp while the property is still on the market, and a backup plan to store it off site at a temporary location if we need to move it before we find a permanent home. About 80% of the blacksmithing equipment is stuff I own personally- items I purchased or built over the years. The remaining 20% is the equipment donated by the NWBA or by other donors. It’s not clear what will happen to that equipment at this point, since it is technically owned by the scout organization now. (It’s possible that I may be able to purchase it from them if the situation warrants.)
My current (tentative) plan is to look for shop space I can rent in or near the Tacoma/Lakewood area. This would enable my volunteer staff and I to continue offering classes to youth. Funding would have to come by offering classes to adults at enough of a profit to enable us to offer them to youth at cost or free. Having the shop space close to where most of us live would also help greatly in enabling us to build our own skills. As it is, only getting to forge out at camp or at Longview means our progression is pretty slow. We’re excellent teachers, but mediocre blacksmiths at best. J The challenge will be whether or not we can raise enough money through classes and other offerings to cover rent and still have enough to be able to give instruction to youth. Since none of us is planning to quit our day jobs to run the program, we need to ensure we can do enough work around our normal jobs to make this work. Needless to say, there’s some number crunching ahead.
One thing I would like to do in addition to the shop at a fixed location is have a trailer set up so we can take our classes mobile. Then we could attend scout camporees, youth group weekend events, and perhaps even camp weeks for different scout councils around the northwest, offering a blacksmithing program as needed.
At any rate, there are a lot of possibilities, some risks, and a lot of decisions ahead. Needles to say, I am very sad to see the camp closing. I have been part of Camp Hahobas in various ways for 16 of its 82 years, and seeing it being closed and sold off like this is a tragic loss. I think our blacksmithing program is in many ways responsible for keeping the wolf from the door for a time, and I know all the young men and women that participated in the program over the last 8 years have really benefitted from it.
I have nothing to ask of the NWBA members at this time, other than to perhaps considering taking some time to invite some young folks into your shop from time to time and teach them something. The rewards you get back from doing so more than make up for any time you invest.
In closing, I want to thank those folks in the NWBA that have contributed to our program over the years. While we may be changing venues or approaches, I’m confident that our little band of volunteer smiths will continue in some form or another. If nothing else, I’m sure we will see you all at mentoring center events and conferences!
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