By DONNA RYDER
Swimming, shooting, crafts and making new friends have long been a part of 4-H camp for students in Obion County and across Tennessee.
Before Buford Ellington 4-H Center in Milan closed in 2009, about 1,200 West Tennessee 4-H’ers per year enjoyed a week of their summer at the former facility. During the past couple of years, the western region has averaged only 600 4-H’ers attending camp at the W.P. Ridley 4-H Center in Columbia, which is about a three-hour drive from Obion County.
Shortly after the Milan facility closed, there were behind-the-scenes efforts on at least two fronts to reopen Milan or open a new facility in the western regional.
On Monday night, politicians, farmers, people working in agriculture-related businesses and former 4-H’ers from Obion and Weakley counties gathered at the Obion County Public Library for an invitation-only meeting where they learned that the University of Tennessee Extension System is looking at the latter option.
Obion County UT Extension office director Tim Smith told those in attendance that he was hired by UT to lead the effort in locating, purchasing and building a new UT facility for 4-H camps in the western region. He started those additional duties in September.
Smith said the first West Tennessee 4-H camp was held in 1924 in Jackson Experiment Station. It was moved to the former University of Tennessee Junior College in Martin in 1932 and in 1964 opened at the Milan facility. He said UT purchased the Martin facility in 1962. Prior to that time, the buildings, which were used as camp cabins, housed the families of the men who were fighting in the war. He said many of their wives worked at the ammunition plant. The cabins were used for the 45-year life span of the 4-H camp with very little change. Smith said at the time of the camp’s closure, the cabins were in very bad shape and it would have cost more to fix them than they were worth.
Recognizing that it was important for West Tennessee to have its own facility, UT Extension named the development and creation of a West Tennessee 4-H Center as a key initiative for its 2010-20 strategic plan. A Vision Committee, which includes 15 people, including Smith and Jim Byford, who is dean emeritus at UTM, was named and began meeting.
Smith said their vision is a large, state-of-the-art educational center that would not only be used as a 4-H camp facility, but would also have hotel lodging and a convention area with the capability to serve a banquet-style meal to 400 people at one time.
Byford said the facilities which have been visited by the committee have had similar set ups, with officials at those facilities stating the convention and hotel portion of the centers fund the facilities and make it possible for them to offer camp to 4-Hers at reasonable prices.
Smith said the cost of camp has grown from $50-$60 for the week when he was taking 4-Hers to camp at Milan to the now $250 for the week for camp in Columbia.
Smith said he has already looked at three very impressive sites, but will be looking at more as the sites are brought to his attention. He said, ideally, the site will be at least 200-400 acres, with a mixture of pasture, row crops and other open areas; have a large lake; and have a feeling of being secluded, while also being located near a 24-hour medical facility. The Vision Committee would also like for there to be a stream or river, a swamp and hilly terrain; for the property to be centrally located in West Tennessee near an interstate or primary highway; and for it to be in proximity to a large population with retail stores.
Administrative offices, maintenance buildings, lodging for the summer staff and camp manager, large indoor multipurpose conference rooms, small- to medium-sized meeting rooms, a large covered outdoor pavilion, multiple smaller pavilions and spaces for small gatherings, an outdoor amphitheater, an outdoor cooking area next to an indoor kitchen, outdoor dining areas and a chapel-type building, which could be used for large gatherings and weddings, are among the buildings planned in the earlier stages. Recreational facilities include a swimming pool with a water slide; athletic fields; shooting ranges for archery, shotgun, smallbore rifle, indoor air rifle and centerfire rifle; low and high rope courses; a wildlife teaching building; an arts and crafts building; a playground; a rock climbing wall; vegetable and fruit gardens; examples of green and alternative energy technologies; a barn for an educational animal farm; a computer lab; a greenhouse; an agricultural demonstration area and an equestrian area.
While the facility could host a variety of events, the educational services the committee thinks should be the focus of the center include agriculture, shooting sports, wildlife and fisheries, environmental education and energy and technology.
Development is broken into four stages: I — land acquisition, land preparation and development of landscape features and hiring a camp manager; II — construction of the kitchen and dining facilities, an outdoor pavilion, lodging for 175-200 youth, educational spaces, outdoor recreation areas, staff housing and office and maintenance facilities; IIIa — construction of conference facilities, including lodging rooms for 70 and meeting spaces; IIIb — construction of camp manager’s house, shooting ranges, rope courses, etc.; and IV — expansion of youth lodging to 275-300 and conference lodging to 140.
Smith said he hopes to be through with the listening sessions by mid-January and to have a site selected by early April.
Potential donors and partners are also being sought, as are any ideas about available properties.
For more information, contact Smith by email at email@example.com or at the Obion County Extension office at 885-3742.
Published in The Messenger 12.4.12