The Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in north Minneapolis has received Carver County's blessing to restore an outdoor camp for city kids on land it owns there, despite being turned down by the township and initially rejected by neighbors on Oak Lake.
Camp Katharine Parsons was a popular summer destination for generations of north Minneapolis kids, who learned to canoe, build fires and respect nature at the 106-acre site. But the camp, just east of the city of Watertown, fell into disrepair and was discontinued in the 2000s.
Four years ago, Phyllis Wheatley agreed to a conservation easement with the Minnesota Land Trust to preserve 83 acres of the camp as natural habitat. Now, with county approval in hand, the nonprofit aims to resurrect the camp itself by 2025.
"We really see Camp Katharine Parsons as an entry point to something that's really enviable about Minnesota, period, which is our deep access and love of the outdoors," said camp organizer Anthony Taylor.
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Wheatley's application for the conditional permit to reopen the camp proved to be a process rife with urban-rural tensions, fueled by physical distance and mutual distrust between Wheatley's Minneapolis supporters and skeptical Watertown Township residents.
A township meeting in March was heavily attended both by locals in person and Minneapolis residents via Zoom. The former group raised numerous concerns — whether an influx of youth might disrupt the bucolic lake and its fragile ecosystem, suspicions that Wheatley might try to turn the camp into a for-profit venture, fears that middle- and high schoolers might smuggle in guns.
A township resident, who did not give his name, admonished camp organizers for not proposing plans to check campers' backpacks given "what's going on in the Cities right now."
Wheatley supporters attending virtually were audibly rattled by some of the comments. Former Minneapolis School Board member Kimberly Caprini, a camp alumna who attended the meeting virtually, said she would not have felt welcome in the room.
"These aren't kids that we just go snatch up and bring," she said. "These are kids that are parts of programs. These are kids that are in our schools that are just as sweet and good and kind as the ones that live in your neighborhoods."
The Watertown Township board recommended denying Wheatley the permit to reopen the camp. But Oak Lake resident Ed Foley and a small group of neighbors made a good-faith overture to camp organizers Taylor, Aaron Raivo-Lynch and Laura Danielson. Together they combed through the permit application line by line to better define camp programming, safety protocols and the kind of watercraft allowed in order to control the spread of milfoil.
Once most of the township residents' specific complaints were addressed, Oak Lake neighbors spoke in support of the camp at Carver County's Planning Commission meeting at the end of March.
"It shows you when communities can come together and actually just talk things out, magic happens," said Oak Lake resident David Richter, who said he remembered Camp Katharine Parsons in its heyday and the good rapport he had with directors at the time.
"It's all about trust, right? And I trust these people that say they've got a good curriculum scheduled and a good way to operate. I have confidence in that."
Said Taylor: "There has really been a sincere and beautiful level of community engagement — that as much as it felt contentious in some regards, it was actually the beginning of a deepening relationship."
The Carver County Board unanimously approved the permit for the camp on April 18.
Phyllis Wheatley is now fundraising for the camp. Organizers are lobbying for $6 million — two-thirds of the estimated budget — of equity-based funding to be included in the state's 2024 budget. The camp could open as early as the summer of 2025.
Former state Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis, lobbying on behalf on the camp he attended as a kid, said Camp Katharine Parsons would give some north Minneapolis children their first glimpse of stars against a dark sky without light pollution.
"They've never been in a canoe, they've never sung 'John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,' " Hayden said. "All these wonderful things that I remember, they haven't been able to experience, and we just think that's important."