Easterseals eyes former Dana campus for respite camp

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A portion of the former Dana College campus has been identified as a location for a statewide respite camp for disabled individuals. 
James Summerfelt, President and CEO of Easterseals Nebraska and the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA), said Easterseals is interested in approximately 64.5 acres on the southwestern portion of the Transformation Hill subdivision on the Dana campus, most of which is undeveloped. The current lots do contain two dormitories, Gardner-Hawks Hall, the track and parking lots. Additional campus buildings not in the plots will not be included in the project.
The land is currently owned by Angels Share, Inc. Summerfelt said Easterseals has also identified an additional 10 acre plot, owned by Angels Share as well.
Carole Patrick, Chief Philanthropy Officer with Easterseals and VNA, said the sale with Angels Share is expected to be finalized this summer.
Summerfelt said Easterseals Nebraska, would use the property for its respite camp for individuals with dsabilities, which began in Milford. Initial designs for the project include 20 cabins, horse stables for equine therapy, a lake, a welcome lodge, splash pad, aquatic center, ropes course and other recreational features.
The camp will be accessible via a private driveway off of Highway 91. Summerfelt said the drive to the area will feel like an authentic summer camp.
“When you're coming in, you won't see the campus and you really get the feel like you're out in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
He said the array of features would allow campers to participate in activities they otherwise would not be able to in their day to day lives. 
“The people that attend the camp, believe me, do not get this opportunity usually in their normal daily lives,” he said. “Most of them are being care for by family or other caregivers, so this is their chance to get away and to experience independence and to be with other people who have similar disabilities…and help them experience things they haven’t gotten to experience before.”
The camps would operate as overnight camps Monday through Friday and on the weekends. 
Easterseals, Summerfelt said, has been without a permanent home for its camp for a number of years. The original camp location was unusable following a train derailment in Milford in 1999. Easterseals has since rented locations from various organizations and was most recently situated near Fremont. 
After contact was made with Angels Share, Summerfelt said Easterseals identified the property as a viable location for the project because of its proximity to medical and recreational facilities. 
“It’s a good use of that property,” he said. “It’s beautiful. When we got away from the campus and saw that, that’s when the dreams started popping."
Patrick added that the location of Dana and the community of Blair provide plenty of excitement as Easterseals enters its next chapter.
“Blair is an amazing community and a perfect location that lends itself to a beautiful outdoor recreation setting while providing the important amenities of a local hospital and community hospitality services for those we serve,” she said. “Camp Easterseals will also bring economic development through job creation and utilization of local restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and other businesses.”
Patrick said the project is estimated for $40 million, but said in an email to the Enterprise that that Easterseals is “working with experts to re-evaluate costs and the phases in which we might build the camp to begin serving individuals with disabilities as soon as possible.”
Blair Assistant City Administrator Aaron Barrow said the Easterseals proposal would provide several benefits to the city, including using an attractive but long-dormant piece of land and bringing new people into the city.
“I think it's just going to have a tremendous impact not only to the community they serve, but also here in Blair where you'll have families taking advantage of resources, traveling here, shopping here and potentially staying in a hotel here,” he said. “It's going to be good for the whole community.
“It's good to see something positive taking shape here at Dana.”
Mike Rooks, Gateway Development Executive Director, said the project will offer tax benefits to the county, provide new jobs and build a culture of growth on campus that could lead to additional investors arriving on campus.
“I think it will bring in new investors in to looking other parts of former campus and help Angels shares as well,” Rooks said. “I have said this before but any new business (for-profit or nonprofit)  will help diversify employers in Blair and that’s a good thing.  
“I am very excited about this project, it is not every day you have a major nonprofit like Easterseals want to build something this substantial in your community.”
Official measures to accommodate the project began Tuesday at the Blair Planning Commission’s regular meeting when the board unanimously approved a replat of two lots on the Transformation Hill portion of the Dana campus. Rebecca Fox, Don Hansen and Joe Peleska were absent.
The replat would simply change the lot sizes of the two lots. 
With the planning commission's recommendation, the replat will face final approval by the Blair City Council at its regular meeting June 14.

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