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YMCA summer camp coming to Swain

fr watiaYMCA of Western North Carolina is getting ready to break ground on Camp Watia, a summer camp in Swain County to serve children in the region. 

Ken and Nancy Glass of Buncombe County purchased the pristine 900 acres near Fontana Lake about 10 years ago and donated it to the YMCA of WNC with conservation in mind.

“Nancy served on our board of directors at the time they had purchased this beautiful plot of land and they didn’t want to see it developed,” said Jes Williams, YMCA vice president of organizational and financial development in Asheville. “They wanted to make it a camp for kids because their kids grew up in Y camps and had (great experiences) there.” 

Williams said the YMCA has spent several years making sure a residential camp in Swain County would be a sustainable, long-term project and that the YMCA would be able to raise the money needed for construction. A market study shows that an affordable youth camp in Swain would fill a void in the market.

“There are many local camps, but many are out of reach for local families and cater to families outside the county,” Williams said. “We knew we would be able to create something without duplication and serve the families of Western North Carolina.”

The overnight camp will operate eight weeks out of the summer and is estimated to cost about $550 per week. 

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YMCA’s goal is to raise $6 million for construction. Williams said she has quietly fundraised about $2.5 million so far and is on schedule to break ground in May. The official kickoff public campaign will begin May 8 and the camp will open in the summer of 2016 if all goes as planned. 

Camp Watia will preserve the land’s sensitive natural resources, forests, wetlands, ecosystems and cultural history. The first phase of the project will occupy about 100 acres of the property and will include a dining hall and kitchen, cabins that can house 265 campers ages 6-16, an administrative center, an adventure course, a volleyball court, campfire and amphitheater space, and a dock and pavilion on the 3-acre pond for swimming. 

Williams said the second phase of the project, which would be years down the road, would include additional cabins, staff housing, more pavilions and a maintenance building.

Williams said the property provides the landscape for a natural classroom to shape programming in STEM, environmental studies, cultural enrichment and conservation. It also provides a platform for partnership with regional universities and businesses, to provide support that will enhance programming. 

The camp will likely have an economic impact on Swain and surrounding counties by bringing new year-round and seasonal employment. The camp and shoulder season operations will bring hundreds of “heads in beds” into the region and directly into the county, said Williams. 

Ken Mills, economic development director for Swain County, is excited about the direct and indirect economic development potential the camp could have on the county. He said the camp would provide new seasonal and year-round jobs and also may hire local contractors to do some work during construction. 


“When you start looking at the support services, there’s an opportunity for landscaping contractors, HVAC contractors and others to get more work,” he said. 

Then there are parents who will drive their children to the camp and spend money along the way at gas stations, restaurants and other retailers. Even though the families may be from WNC, Mills said, there are plenty of families who have never visited Swain County before. His hope is that those families will see what Swain and other WNC counties have to offer and will return in the future. 

“If they have to pick up their kid Sunday, maybe they’ll spend the weekend,” he said. “Anytime we can get that to happen, it’s a good thing for the area — it’s all about exposure.”

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