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Canton’s fight to keep Camp Hope takes a new turn

Canton leaders are pondering how much time and money to invest in an abandoned summer camp and mountain property left to the town under one condition — its use benefit Haywood County residents.

After it was deeded the 100-acre Camp Hope, the town leased it to a private weight-loss camp. But now, amid fall-out from a legal tug-of-war over Camp Hope, the weight-loss camp is pulling out, leaving Canton to run and manage the property on its own.

Canton got around $8,000 a year from Wellsprings Adventure Camp, which ran the weight-loss program. But the town is out more than money. As part of its lease, Wellsprings handled maintenance and upkeep of the grounds, cabins and dining hall, as well as booked a smattering of family reunions, weddings and picnics held at the site — all of which Canton must now do.

The lawsuit that drove Wellsprings away alleged Canton wasn’t keeping up its end of the bargain in the inheritance — namely to use the property for public good. Leasing it almost exclusively to a private summer weight-loss camp doesn’t count as public benefit, the lawsuit states.

The case is still pending. Given the chance that Canton could lose the property, Wellsprings couldn’t count on being able to continue using Camp Hope, and thus pulled out.

“To ensure continuity with their program because of the lawsuit and the uncertainty with the lawsuit, they felt like they should not continue the lease,” said Canton Town Manager Al Matthews.

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Now, with the weight-loss camp gone, Canton has to retool how it manages the property.

“We would like to see a summer program for Haywood County people,” Matthews said. However, with summer only about five months away, Matthews said he is not sure that will be possible this year.

Town employees were at Camp Hope last week looking it over with Wellsprings staff to discuss repair and maintenance issues.

“In general, it’s in pretty good shape,” Matthews said. He did not know yet how much the upkeep, which includes paying electric bills and mowing the grass, will cost the town.

Wellsprings Adventure Camp paid the town between $8,000 and $8,500 a year to use about 15 acres of the nearly 100-acre tract, most of it forested. During its seven years at Camp Hope, Wellsprings invested another $500,000 in upkeep and improvements.

While the town of Canton is supposed to use the property to benefit local residents, the town had no formal mechanism to get the word out about Camp Hope or otherwise advertise that the property could be rented out by the public for events.

The only mention was on Wellsprings website, which handled the booking for events to ensure that nothing conflicted with its two, eight-week summer programs.

“If anyone made inquiries before, we directed them to Wellsprings,” Matthews said.

Matthews said that Camp Hope had hosted weddings, family reunions and the Cruso Fire Department picnic, but he did not know how many events — whether three or 13 — were actually held there yearly.

Canton has already received inquires from Haywood County residents about using the property for family reunions and other gatherings. Matthews said the town plans to post a sign at the entrance to Camp Hope letting county residents know they are welcome to use the land, although for facility use they must contact the town first.

The town has not decided whether to charge a “nominal” rental fee for using Camp Hope, Matthews said. The fee could help pay some of the maintenance costs, though it would not cover everything, he added.

“It’s like operating the swimming pool. We lose money operating the swimming pool each and every year,” Matthews said. “It’s a service to the people.”


How it all started

The paper company Champion International previously owned Camp Hope but gave it to Canton on the condition that the property be used for recreational purposes that benefit mostly Haywood County residents and those in surrounding counties.

But John and Deborah Prelaz, who stand to inherit the property if Canton violates those terms, filed a suit last year arguing that the town was not keeping its end of the deal by almost exclusively leasing part of the property to Wellsprings, whose clientele is mostly out-of-town.

The fact that Wellsprings will no longer lease the property from Canton — and as a result it may be made more available to the general public — won’t make the lawsuit go away. Both parties in the suit agreed about a year ago that anything that happened after the suit was filed would not have any bearing on the case, said Mark Kurdy, attorney for the Prelazs.

“That was basically to allow the town of Canton to continue to do what they need to do,” Kurdy said.

If the lawsuit’s outcome favors Canton, Matthews said Wellsprings would be welcomed back. However, if the Prelazs win their case, Camp Hope will become private property.

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