LOWGAP — Arriving at the fabled Lost Colony area on Roanoke Island in the late 1500s probably provided the same feeling people get today when visiting the site of Camp E-Mun-Talee at Lowgap.
When visitors make their way up the winding gravel road leading to the former facility for troubled youths, they will find an array of buildings scattered over the hillside — a welcoming presence that one would associate with a thriving getaway destination.
Only no one is there. The gated compound tucked against a mountainside in one of Surry County’s more remote locations is totally deserted except for insects and other wildlife — although the well-kept condition of the place suggests its inhabitants had just departed.
However, unlike the Lost Colony, their less-than-mysterious disappearance occurred in 2010, when unexpected state budget cuts forced the closure of the camp that had been run by Eckerd Youth Alternatives since 1979.
The Eckerd organization operated an innovative program at the sprawling site, where at-risk teen-age boys were sent as an alternative to conventional treatment measures. The kids, some from big cities, lived in tents year-round at the remote rural location, where survival skills were stressed along with regular education.
In the end, that harsh environment enabled the youths to learn responsibility and teamwork that theoretically made them better citizens upon returning to the “outside world.”
And despite the inevitable escape attempts of minor quantity and consequence, the program was hailed as a tremendous success story for this innovative approach — which still didn’t prevent its demise in a tight economy.
But a recent announcement could result in the wilderness camp becoming a beehive of activity once again, possibly as a church retreat or similar facility.
The Piedmont Land Conservancy (PLC), a non-profit organization based in Greensboro which works to preserve natural and scenic areas in a nine-county region that includes Surry, is putting the camp property up for sale Tuesday.
“PLC was given the property right around 2000,” said Kevin Redding, the executive director of the land conservancy.
A similar entity, the Nature Conservancy of North Carolina, originally was granted control of the Lowgap property — totaling hundreds of acres — in the late 1970s, coinciding with the plan by the Eckerd organization to operate the youth camp there.
Although the Nature Conservancy’s focus also is on protecting natural and scenic resources, its holdings largely are in eastern North Carolina — far removed from Lowgap.
That led to the property being transferred to the Piedmont Land Conservancy around 2000, which continued to lease it to the youth camp at no cost.
“We never gave any thought to what if the youth camp goes out of business,” Redding said.
“During the 30 years they had the camp,” he said of the Eckerd group, “they had built some very nice buildings.”
The evidence of this can be seen today at the self-contained site that boasts a modern educational center, an administration building, a wood shop, a lodge-type facility with a huge fireplace, cabins where camp supervisors lived, a laundry building, a modern kitchen, a warehouse and raised tent sites where the kids lived.
Mother Nature has provided the rest with a picturesque setting dotted by hiking trails.
Redding said the decision by the PLC to put the property on the market represents an attempt to keep the buildings from falling into a state of neglect and disrepair by having them used for another purpose since the youth camp closed.
With all that’s there, “it would be irresponsible to just let it sit there and deteriorate,” he said of the camp and its amenities. “Because they’re going to get to the point where they’re not usable.”
Some limited attempts were made early to have a college, church or other institution take over the property in a similar manner as the Eckerd organization, which were unsuccessful.
“We came to the realization that we needed to sell this property,” Redding said of the decision to advertise its availability on a widespread basis. “We just can’t sit back and wait any longer — we’re going to have to go out and search for them (potential buyers).”
Distance is one motivating factor.
“The camp is so far away from our office,” Redding said of the Greensboro-based PLC.
Since Camp E-Mun-Talee closed several years ago, Nelson Snow, a former staff member there, has been a kind of overseer for the place, which explains its good condition today.
“Nelson has helped us tremendously, taking care of the camp and keeping an eye on it,” Redding said.
The decision to sell the site actually was made some time ago, but a survey was done first to pinpoint the exact acreage involved. “And that took close to a year,” the PLC official said.
It was important that the survey occur, Redding said, to make sure boundaries with neighboring properties were clear. “We didn’t want to walk away and leave a mess.”
In the early years, it was thought the property given by the Hanes family amounted to 960 acres, but modern survey techniques revealed the total to be 679 acres. Another 183 acres of that was sold to some neighbors who controlled access to the northern end of the tract, leaving roughly 496 acres the Piedmont Land Conservancy will be offering for sale.
“The asking price is $950,000,” Redding said. “To the right person, it is a spectacular deal.”
Redding added that the 40-acre or so space containing the camp will be carved out of the total acreage, with the sales agreement to call for the remaining property, of about 450 acres, being protected from development. The buyer will be able to use it for hunting or other recreational purposes, but not for anything that would destroy the integrity of the scenic location.
“So it can’t be timbered and things like that,” said Ellen Peric, a Pilot Mountain Realtor who is involved with the sale of the camp through the Carolina Farms and Homes firm there.
Redding said residents of the surrounding community should be assured that the Piedmont Land Conservancy is not “just trying to sell it and get as much money as we can.”
Instead, the proceeds will be used for other conservation projects in the region. Typically, the PLC buys scenic areas, such as the Fishers Peak property it has acquired in recent years. That is providing permanent protection to more than 1,700 acres there.
In other cases, the organization obtains easements from farmers and other property owners, who can continue to use land, but with the PLC’s involvement ensuring it won’t be turned into parking lots in the future.
The sale of the former youth camp at Lowgap will have the same effect, said Redding, who pointed out that since the Piedmont Land Conservancy doesn’t sell property, this has been a learning experience for the organization.
“What we’d love to see is some youth or church-affiliated therapy group get their hands on the property, because it’s just perfect for that,” he said.
Hopefully, some entity can utilize the site “and it will be something Surry County can be proud of,” the PLC official said. “It’s an amazing asset sitting there…just a beautiful place.”
Redding said letting residents of the area know what was in the works has been a key consideration.
“We just don’t want the ‘for sale’ sign to go out and people to say, ‘it would have been nice to know what was going on up there,’” the PLC official said.
“It’s kind of a dear and sacred place to them — and we understand that.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.