Town accepting proposals for new Sunny Cove owners

Ken Kellar

The search is on for a new owner to take over the operation of a beloved local property.

At the Town of Fort Frances’ regular council meeting on March 9, Mayor June Caul announced the town would be looking to step away from owning Sunny Cove Camp, formerly the property of the Kiwanis club before the town took over operations in 2009.

According to the mayor, the town’s “current financial picture” led to the decision to divest itself of the asset, though she was quick to note that both the Town and the Kiwanis club are committed to finding a non-profit owner for the property who will be willing to continue to operate the camp as it has for the past few decades; primarily to be the home for several youth camps and activites, as well as a venue for charity events and weddings.

The Request for Proposal is currently open on the Town of Fort Frances website, and applications are set to be closed on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 following an extension to the closing date.

Aaron Bisson, the town’s Recreation and Culture Manager, expanded on the mayor’s comments and provided some insight as to why the town decided it was time to step away from the property.

“It sort of came up through the budget process,” he explained.

“We understood that it was going to be a difficult budget year with a lot of the things that are going on and the town had to start looking at the services that they provide and Sunny Cove was one of the items that came up, just due to the fact that it’s outside of town limits… and as far as its impact on the number of citizens, it’s a small impact. There’s some camps that use the property and then we’re also limited to the number of activities outside of camps that are allowed to be booked out there, so it was just a little bit limited that way.”

Bisson noted that Sunny Cove Camp currently costs the town around $40,000 to operate each year, which is money that can be freed up to go to other parts of the town’s budget.

“That’s not Capital either, that’s just operating [costs],” he said.

“Building upkeep, all that sort of stuff… making sure you’re meeting all the regulations… all those things, that would be a capital nature. None of that is included in that cost. That’s just strictly to operate it, to open it and have them be able to do the camps out there and the weddings and that kind of stuff.”

In the past, the property has been the home for various church and youth camps in the district, including the I Am Awesome (And I Know It) self-esteem retreat. Mayor Caul noted at the March council meeting that both the town and Kiwanis club would be working to find a new non-profit to take over operations and keep interruptions as minimal as possible. Bisson explained that the original deal the town made with the Kiwanis club when they purchased the camp had specific wording to ensure that going forward Sunny Cove would remain available to serve the youth in the district.

Listed as part of the Request for Proposal issued by the town, the original 2009 purchase and sale agreement contains wording which states “that in the extraordinary circumstance that the Town chooses or decides to divest itself of the operation and ownership of the property, then the Town will turn over the property to a non-profit organization that as closely as possible parallels the original intent and vision of the Kiwanis Sunny Cove Camp.” The document also states the agreement can be put into a restrictive covenant to be registered against the title to the property.

Bisson noted that while the town wants any new owner to continue to operate the camp as it has run in the past, there’s also nothing stopping them from expanding the operations.

“We would just prefer a non-profit take it over and kind of try and run it the same, with youth camps,” he said.

“It’s not saying that they can’t do other things, perhaps.”

In the past the town brushed with controversy when it discussed allowing weddings at the camp. While the plan caused some private business owners in town to argue that opening up the camp to catered events like wedding receptions would mean the town would be competing against private businesses, the town eventually decided to allow weddings on the property during the shoulder seasons -the times of year when youth camps aren’t booked there- and further increased the number of weddings that could be booked each year in 2016.

When asked if the town had considered other methods of increasing revenue from the property in order to continue ownership, Bisson noted that even though weddings are allowed out at the camp, the Town was still beholden to their original agreement with the Kiwanis club.

“[Sunny Cove’s] primary focus is for youth camps, so it’s not like we could book 50 weddings out there and use it year-round and have it be a wedding venue,” he said.

“Its purpose, and what the Kiwanis wanted to see it continue as, is a place for the area youth. So the ability to generate revenue, simply with that fact, is difficult.”

None of this is to say the town begrudged the restrictions in place. Bisson made it clear that the Town was more than willing to keep the Kiwanis’ vision in place, and is trying to make sure that vision continues.

“When we started talking about the possibility of divesting ourselves from Sunny Cove one of our first phone calls or communications was with the Kiwanis because we have that agreement,” Bisson said.

“We want to honor that agreement with them and we would like to see it move forward as a camp for the youth in the future as well. When we took it over from them we were very respectful of the fact that that’s how they wanted it to continue, and so we want it to continue forward as the same sort of opportunity as well.”