Billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is coming under fire for buying a pristine peninsula in the San Juan Islands and making plans to build a home there.
At issue in Allen’s $8 million purchase of the Sperry Peninsula is Camp Nor’wester, where for 51 years 9- to 16-year-olds - at a current rate of $2,050 for a four-week stay - have communed with nature and done all the traditional summer-camp stuff.
Had anyone else bought the 387-acre property on Lopez Island, tucked between Washington’s coast and Canada’s Vancouver Island, there might have been concerns about theme parks, golf courses or luxury-home subdivisions.
Because the buyer was Allen, none of that will happen.
But also because the buyer is Allen, camp operators were hoping the camp could go on as it has for decades, exposing youngsters to the joys of hiking, camping, sailing, canoeing and horseback riding, as well as arts, crafts, music and drama.
Allen, one of the world’s richest men with a personal fortune of $7.2 billion, is known for eclectic spending. He owns the Portland Trailblazers pro basketball team and has an option on the Seattle Seahawks pro football team. He’s helped finance parks and libraries. His Experience Music Project is building a Jimi Hendrix Museum at the Seattle Center.
But unfortunately for the campers, for thousands of camp alumni and for director Paul Henriksen and his wife, Krista Campbell, Allen did not buy the peninsula so Camp Nor’wester could continue.
He plans to build a private residence on the property, which a camp brochure describes as including “virgin timber, pastures, meadows, lagoons, sandbars and four miles of saltwater shoreline.”
Under the purchase agreement signed last fall with Charles and Junia Cirran of Bellevue, who have owned the peninsula since 1980, the camp can remain on-site until Sept. 15.
Then it must go.
A New York Times article Friday said the camp is learning “what it feels like to be kicked out of a place called home.”
But camp operators took issue with the Times’ contention that Allen had handed them an eviction notice.
“He gave us a very generous lease,” Henriksen said in a telephone interview from the island Friday. “He’s not charging us anything - well, maybe it was a dollar - to use it from March till September.”
Allen also offered the camp use of a small island he owns nearby - Allan Island, in Rosario Strait - but it’s on open water and shipping lanes, without the sheltered bays used on the overnight sails and camping trips that have long been a Nor’wester tradition.
“The waterfront program is one of our biggest programs,” Henriksen said.
So the island - “a beautiful little island,” he said - won’t do.
“Nevertheless, it was a very generous offer of their own island,” noted Allen spokeswoman Sue Pierson in Seattle.
The purchase agreement includes “all the physical aspects” of the camp - its buildings, boats, gear and livestock - and Allen has donated all of it back, she said Friday.
“I take issue when Mr. Allen is characterized as not being supportive of this camp,” Pierson said.
“It was part of the agreement that they would not co-exist. That was well-known back in November,” she said.
Allen will help the camp relocate and “try to continue because he thinks the camp is very special and valuable,” Pierson said. “I think he’s going above and beyond what a lot of buyers would do.”
The camp operators had hoped for much more. And Henriksen concedes he’s still hoping Allen will change his mind and agree to coexistence with the camp, whose grounds cover a few dozen acres.
But he allows that’s unlikely.
Youngsters attended the camp’s two four-week summer sessions - about 190 kids at each one, tended by 90 staff - are aware this is its last year on Sperry Peninsula, Henriksen said.
But “we’re having a very good summer,”’ he said. “We didn’t want to turn this into one long wake.”
When the lease is up Sept. 15, the business name and files will be turned over to a recently formed nonprofit organization that will “basically run the camp,” Henriksen said.
Camp operators have looked at about 50 area sites for relocation, but only three were promising and those “weren’t doable,” he said.
“Basically, we’re still looking,” said Henriksen, 45, who has been part of the camp operation for 18 years.
He said he has received stacks of mail from concerned camp alumni since the property went on sale.
At least 200 camp alums have also written Allen, Pierson said, adding that Allen has made sure each received a personal reply from “a member of the family.”
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