Baltimore foundation to build camp

DNR-Erickson partnership is meant to teach pupils about the bay, rivers

May 14, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST - A Baltimore-based foundation is building a $30 million camp for middle school pupils on a teardrop-shaped field along the Elk Neck peninsula, where turtles and deer now have the run of a beach with views stretching from the Chesapeake to the Susquehanna.

The Erickson Foundation is hoping that NorthBay will lure Maryland pupils, particularly sixth-graders, for a week of adventure and education at the 97-acre site in Cecil County. The camp, with room for 310 children, will use the natural setting to teach them about such varied topics as wetlands ecosystems and the best inner-tubing techniques.

NorthBay officially breaks ground today, though construction has been under way for several weeks. The project is an ambitious partnership between Erickson and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which is providing the camp's land.

"From what we've seen so far, they're going to provide a high quality of education that, frankly, we do not have the funds and the resources to do," said Maj. John W. Norbeck, a park ranger and regional manager for the DNR's state forest and park service.

Though the DNR has education programs at every state park abutting the bay, Norbeck said, NorthBay's will be the largest and most extensive when it opens in August 2005.

Founding a camp had long been a goal of the foundation, established by John and Nancy Erickson in 1998. As chairman of Erickson Retirement Communities, which built Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville and Oak Crest Village in Parkville, John Erickson wanted to fund research on issues affecting older adults. But as one of 14 children - all of whom graduated from college - he also wanted to focus on education.

Building the camp, though, was challenging. Scouts spent several years searching for the right site and settled on the parcel along Horseshoe Point Lane nearly three years ago. Next came a long permit-approval process that involved, among others, the state Board of Public Works and Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission.

After Erickson officials agreed to conduct bird and trail studies, safeguard native plants and help eradicate non-native invaders such as phragmites, the foundation got the green light to begin building.

"This has been the most scrutinized, most critically looked at project - for all the right reasons," said Bob Bingham, Erickson's managing director for NorthBay.

The foundation hopes to keep the camp affordable for school districts by renting out the space on weekends to private groups. Staff will eventually include interns from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where Erickson is establishing a school to research housing options for the elderly.

The camp's Cecil County location also highlights a portion of the Chesapeake often overshadowed by more popular spots on the Eastern Shore and in Annapolis. Despite the state's many environmental research labs, Bingham said, the northern bay region remains a largely untapped resource.

That will open the door for the campers to conduct what Bingham calls "real science" - discovering new methods of restoring submerged aquatic vegetation, identifying different birds and insects, and trying new methods of conservation. The students will be able to follow their research year-round on NorthBay's Web site, www.northbayadventure.com.

Bingham also discovered another advantage of the northern bay region: It's largely freshwater, so the children can swim without fear of sea nettles or other biting critters.

He said the camp has generated a lot of excitement, and he expects it to be booked when it opens.

"Our marriage of adventure with science and discovery - we're sold on that," Bingham said. "It's all about the kids, and the bay, and giving them the experience of a lifetime."

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