Coming back to life

First Posted: 8/29/2009

WESTFIELD There is a rumbling of activity at Camp Sertoma in Westfield these days. Vehicles roll in and out of the long dirt driveway from Moores Springs Road. Screen doors open and shut. Rockers on the front porch are often occupied. Trails are being forged in the woods.
No, this is not a flashback to the late 1800s and early 1900s when the hotel at the mineral springs was in full operation and tourists from all over the world were coming and going. Instead, this is an August day in 2009.
Camp Sertoma is breathing its first breaths in its resurrection as a tourist attraction in Stokes County. And the air is sweet.
Just ask Tony McGee, executive director of StokesCORE (Stokes County Organization for Revitalizing the Economy).
He spends many of his days at the camp since the offices of StokesCORE are now located there, free of charge, thanks to an invitation from Camp Sertoma Director Keith Russell. Although Sertoma has been used as a 4-H camp for many years, McGee, a Stokes County native, had never been there until recently.
Sertoma is this underused resource for the county, McGee said of the 900-acre property owned by North Carolina State University. Its so underutilized.
But all of that is about to change.
Sertoma is gearing up to become much more than a 4-H camp. It is partnering with Forsyth Technical Community College, facilitated by StokesCORE, to offer classes for Continuing Education and Corporate Training. Beginning on Aug. 31, 11 fall classes will be available through FTCC at Sertoma.
These are not the same curriculum-based classes as are offered at the Stokes County Government Center. They are primarily trade classes, such as welding, HVAC and photography. The brochure advertising these classes calls them hands-on opportunities to use new skills in a living lab setting. Computer classes will also be available, as have been offered previously in other parts of the county through FTCC, but the trade classes are new to the area.
This is a tremendous chance to get programs here, McGee explained, particularly for folks in the northern part of the county. He added that many of these programs will help to spearhead the revitalization that StokesCORE works to bring to Stokes County.
Culinary classes can be taught in the large kitchen and hospitality sessions in the lodge. An upscale tobacco barn, built with Golden LEAF Foundation money, has three classrooms that can house some of the trade classes. Anyone interested in signing up for these classes may call (336) 593-2482.
Jane Morgan Smith of King, a member of the StokesCORE Board of Directors, sees the classes at Sertoma as part of the long-range goal for Stokes County to have a stand-alone community college. Were thrilled to be here to be a part of it, she said.
Its an interim step, McGee agreed.
Having college classes onsite is not the sole vision for Sertoma, though. Smith, McGee and their associates have even bigger goals. They want to see the camp used as a conference and educational center, bringing in people from other counties and regions. What better place to do it? McGee asked, gesturing around him to the scenic beauty of the camp, the cabins, the lodge, the stone chapel. He sees it as an upscale version of the tourist accommodations at nearby Hanging Rock State Park.
Turning the camp into a conference center will require significant infrastructure improvements, according to McGee. Already the wheels are turning for these improvements.
The kitchen renovation is scheduled to begin Oct. 1. The basement will also be upgraded to allow for storage. These improvements carry a hefty price tag of $975,000 money already provided by the state of North Carolina as an investment in its property at Sertoma. The completion date is projected as April 2010.
Another $700,000 will upgrade and restore the cabins optimally, all in time for camp season next year. Russell hopes to find private donors to help upgrade the bedrooms in the lodge. Long-range plans include building a structure near the first set of cabins for a new dining hall and office space.
There is even the possibility that the present lodge and surrounding buildings could remain simply a camp and a new building could be constructed elsewhere on the property for the conference center. Even after the renovations, churches, youth groups or other organizations will still be able to reserve the camp for use.
Already work is underway to construct mountain bike trails on the camp property. The project began about a month ago, with a short-term goal of having three miles of trails completed by the end of 2009. The long-term goal is 20 miles of bike trails. This will be a regional draw, said McGee.
Laborers for this project are being hired through Workforce Development and are paid with stimulus money designed to jumpstart the economy.
McGee explained how he first approached Althea Hairston, director of the Northwest Piedmont Workforce Development Board and a Stokes County native herself. He told her of the great opportunity at Sertoma and how resources were needed to fund it. Her organization recognized the potential of the Sertoma project to not only help revitalize Stokes County but also to provide jobs for local people, and they agreed to pay to have high-speed Internet installed at the camp. Embarq, a local Internet provider, agreed to install the service for free.
Workforce Development has also worked out arrangements for transportation for those who have no way to get to the classes at Sertoma. Those who are unemployed or who meet certain income criteria may even be able to take the classes for free.
Smith still stands in awe of the way things seem to be working together to speed things along at Sertoma. If Althea hadnt grown up in Stokes County and hadnt had a love for the county, this never wouldve happened, she said.
Smith told the story of another fortuitous connection. An independent computer person from Clemmons, Mark Thorne, heard of the need for resources at Sertoma and offered to provide desktop computers, free of charge. He even helped set up the wireless network at the camp.
And Smith cant help but go back even further to the original connection that began the domino effect. Michael Hylton, Stokes Countys interim director of the Cooperative Extension Service, happened to mention to StokesCORE that they should meet the director at Camp Sertoma. He introduced them to Russell, and the results have been staggering as evidenced by the rapid progression of developments at the camp.
StokesCOREs premier role, according to McGee, is to act as a networking agent, a liaison, a facilitator, a coordinator to get three entities together in partnership Camp Sertoma, FTCC and Workforce Development. He is fond of calling his organization the WD-40 that helps keep the gears working together.
Russell said that he is excited about the partnership. Before, he and a full-time groundskeeper/maintenance man were often the only ones onsite. A short-term summer staff also resides there during the camping season. Now the camp is coming to life with people.
Smith positively glows when she talks about the goings-on at the camp. I see Camp Sertoma as being an amazing conference and recreational center, she said. And she believes StokesCORE will continue to be a part of it, Well always call this home.
Smith feels that having FTCC classes at Camp Sertoma will be a plus for Stokes County. Your circle of influence is really much greater than you realize, she said, elaborating that one person who comes to Sertoma will touch the lives of many other people in the county.
McGee, too, is passionate about the classes being offered locally and encourages the public to take advantage of the opportunity. He is currently interviewing applicants for the trail-breaking work and looks far into the future to a day when the camp is again a focal point in the county.
As he rocked back and forth on the spacious front porch of the mammoth four-story lodge that has seen so much history in Stokes County, McGee gazed around him at what was once a showplace for Stokes County. He said with determination, The key is bringing Sertoma back to life.

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