Marek Warszawski

Camp Fresno is in state of disrepair. What happened to the money for improvements?

For 50 years, Tami Roberts of Fresno, Kathy Clemmensen of Clovis and members of their large, extended family enjoyed a week of peaceful retreat under the tall pines of Camp Fresno.

This summer marks Year 51. But this year, most of the family elected to stay home or only come up for day visits. Instead of 26 cabins, the group rented just six.

“Because of the condition of the camp,” Roberts said, “a lot of us won’t come back.”

The question now, for longtime visitors and public officials alike, is how much longer there will be a Camp Fresno to come back to.

Owned by the city of Fresno since the 1920s as a relatively affordable mountain getaway for generations of central San Joaquin Valley families, Camp Fresno has entered into the most tenuous period of its near 100-year history.

The camp’s 51 one- and two-bedroom cabins are in serious need of TLC. Upon check in, guests are commonly greeted with dust and mouse droppings. The bathrooms and shower houses either aren’t open or haven’t been cleaned. The water is currently non-potable, though a recent party was not informed of this until 24 hours after arrival. The water and sewage systems, described as “very poor” in a 2015 assessment report conducted by engineering consulting firm Blair, Church & Flynn, may both be leaky.

Even more visible are the hundreds of stumps and logs that resulted from the massive statewide tree die-off — which hit the Sierra National Forest especially hard — and the ensuing dispute between the city and the camp’s former concessionaire over who was responsible for their felling and removal. (I chronicled that conflict last month.)

In the weeks since, city officials have continued to blame Jarrod and Jennifer Deaver for a mess for which the city bears the ultimate responsibility. And during the recent City Council budget hearings, Assistant City Manager Jim Schaad suggested the city should wash its hands of the situation by divesting its interest in the property.

Schaad’s reasoning? Camp Fresno, which takes in about $50,000 in annual revenues, doesn’t make money.

By that absurd logic, shouldn’t the city sell off all its parks and halt all park-related programs? Because they aren’t money-makers, either.

“I think that’s hogwash,” said Scott Markarian, a member of the Armenian fellowship group The Knights of Vartan that has been holding annual get togethers at Camp Fresno for more than 70 years.

“I’m a taxpayer in Fresno. That’s why we pay taxes. Part of those funds are supposed to maintain these parks.”

Markarian showed me the bill his group paid last week to rent Camp Fresno Junior, a group camp with two dormitories, a kitchen and dining pavilion located across Dinkey Creek from the main camp. The itemized costs include the weekly rate of $2,456 plus a $552 “improvement surcharge.”

The question Markarian and other Camp Fresno regulars want answered is where has all that “improvement surcharge” money gone.

“What improvements?” Markarian said. “You can look around here and tell there haven’t been improvements.”

‘Five-year plan’ doesn’t materialize

City spokesman Mark Standriff assures me that all money collected by the capital improvement fund has been reinvested back into Camp Fresno. However, he has been unable to provide a detailed list of projects and expenditures even though I made the request more than two weeks ago.

The most recent accounting I can dredge up is from March 2016, part of a City Council “action item” when the Deavers were awarded a three-year contract to operate the camp. (The city terminated the deal in November, before two one-year options kicked in.)

On the final page of a 72-page packet, under the headings “Camp Fresno Improvement Projects” and “five-year plan,” a spreadsheet shows revenues (both actual and projected) along with a list of projects and how much each would cost.

According to the spreadsheet, $122,377.33 sat in the capital improvement fund in the fiscal year 2015. But by the time we get to 2018 and beyond, a negative balance is projected.

The spreadsheet shows a range of projects including $200,000 for new sewer lines, $100,000 for new water lines, $100,000 to upgrade the electrical systems in all cabins, $90,000 to replace exterior walls of each cabin and $50,000 to re-grade and overlay dirt roads. (The costs for each project were to be spread over multiple years.)

As far as I can tell, only two projects have gotten off the ground: replacing sewer lines in the two-bedroom cabins and digging a new well, part of an incomplete water system upgrade.

What happened to the rest of the capital improvement fund? I can’t say with any certainty. However, it does appear the city has taken some money from Camp Fresno’s budget to pay for the removal of hazard dead trees from the 38.5-acre property.

Dead trees still a safety risk

When I visited last week, work crews from Fleming & Sons Tree Services were busy loading stumps and logs onto the bed of a semi-truck, which was then driven out of camp. The city estimates the total cost of tree removal at $175,000, according to an internal memo signed by Deputy City Attorney John Hastrup.

The pile of logs and number of dead trees marked in blue spray paint slated for removal by the Forest Service were much smaller than what I observed in May. However, several marked trees still stood near occupied cabins, which present a safety risk for visitors and raise the question of why camp was allowed to open until all were removed.

Elaine Locke, special use permit officer for the Sierra National Forest, told me in an email she was aware of the situation and will make further inquiries.

The city’s original plan was to operate Camp Fresno this summer (two full-time camp hosts have been hired) before a new concessionaire can be found for 2020. However, if the assistant city manager’s words are any indication, there’s some question of whether the city wants to be in the summer-camp business at all. (Selling the facility would require City Council approval.)

To me, this is a terrible idea, not to mention a cop out. The city of Fresno has a Sierra property, situated in a popular summertime destination for camping, fishing and swimming 13 miles from Shaver Lake that would be the envy of many cities. Take some pride in it. Halt the deterioration, make the necessary upgrades and market the place better. And do so before any more longtime visitors stop coming.

“The city did a wonderful job at the beginning,” Clemmensen said. “It was a beautiful place. It’s so sad to see it this way.”

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.