On Tuesday, April 18, the Carver County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted for the passage of Phyllis Wheatley Community Center's Conditional Use Permit (CUP), paving the way for construction to begin on the organization's goal to restore Camp Katharine Parsons, a natural oasis for Northside kids on Oak Lake near Watertown, MN. The approval means Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (PWCC) can move forward with the restoration of the camp, which for decades gave urban kids the opportunity to explore, grow, and learn in the great outdoors.
Camp Katharine Parsons was donated to PWCC in 1956 by its namesake and long-time board member and PWCC supporter, who arranged for the purchase of the parcel of land that juts into Oak Lake in Carver County.
Per Ms. Parsons' wishes, a developmental strategy aimed at providing youth with experiences that can turn them into great citizens was created and, for nearly 50 years, delivered programming that exposed African American youth to the outdoors and to nature — long before the environmentalist movement took hold in the United States. Ms. Parsons' vision for the camp was born from her personal love of the outdoors and the healing she found in nature.
Camp Katharine Parsons was built, opening in 1957. For the next half century, PWCC staff spent summers taking busloads of youth to the camp site every day, exposing generations of Northside youth to camp experiences that are a time-honored and critical piece of Minnesota's cultural heritage. There, campers experienced nature and all of its benefits for the mind and body; and they found the mentorship, guidance, stability, safety, and structure that allowed them to grow into successful adults.
In the early 2000s, as North Minneapolis faced several unexpected challenges, PWCC made the decision to pause camp operations, citing mounting deferred maintenance requirements and a drop in financial support. Meanwhile, in North Minneapolis, the housing crisis and subsequent widespread tornado damage created new needs among our already disadvantaged community. The organization was forced to pivot its programming, redirecting resources to support those displaced from their homes and facing a whole new set of needs. The reopening of the camp became less and less likely.
Now, after 25 years and multiple efforts to bring back Camp Katharine Parsons, PWCC is committed to finishing the project and beginning, again, to provide North Minneapolis youth with the same character-building experiences that generations before them leveraged to find their own personal success in life.
Fundraising has begun, and the project is slated for approval in the governor's special projects budget for 2024. If successful, the legislature will allocate $6 million, or about 2/3 of the overall cost of the restoration, in 2024. But, until Tuesday, the execution of PWCC's plans remained uncertain for reasons that didn't have anything to do with funding.
After several months of discussion, adjustment of plans and scope for programming at the camp, and compromise with neighbors around Oak Lake, PWCC was able to come to an agreement that allows for day camps to resume while assuring its neighbors will continue to enjoy the tranquility of the lake that they've become accustomed to over the past 20 years.
Then, on Tuesday morning, the project cleared its largest hurdle to date. PWCC staff and camp advocates went before the Carver County Commission and gained unanimous approval for the long-belabored and oft-revised Conditional Use Permit (CUP) application, paving the way for construction to begin on the property.
During its dormancy, Camp Katharine Parsons was reclaimed — by nature. Virtually undisturbed for two decades, the property returned to a wilderness refuge and natural preserve that remains today. And, thanks to an agreement with the Minnesota Land Trust in 2020, PWCC is committed to making sure Camp Katharine Parsons remains a natural oasis, pledging to preserve more than 90% of the property's ecological integrity, with plans to build only on the existing footings from the 1956 buildings that still stand on the property today. At the same time, for those looking to discover nature and participate in environmental education programming, Camp Katharine Parsons will avail itself to new generations of youth — and play a key role in raising a new generation of great citizens, leaders, and responsible stewards of the Earth.
The CUP approval sets the parameters around operations for the camp, such as capacity, hours of operation, and programming, and allows PWCC to begin construction on the camp's infrastructure, bringing the property up to code and ensure a safe environment for future campers.