July 26, 2013 / 12:00 PM / 6 years ago

Girl Scouts auction U.S. plantation during financial struggle

CHARLESTON, S.C., July 26 (Reuters) - A historic Southern plantation in the United States will be sold at auction Friday by the financially troubled local Girl Scout council that has owned and used it as a camp for girls for almost five decades.

The camp in South Carolina is one of dozens of Girl Scout camps in 28 states that have closed, been sold or are for sale as chapters across the United States face financial struggles, according to Save Our Scout Camps, a group fighting efforts to sell camps in Iowa and Illinois.

Camp Low Country, about 35 miles from Charleston near tiny Cordesville, South Carolina, sits on 152 acres of the former Richmond Plantation, a sprawling 18th- and 19th-century rice plantation.

Shuttered since 2011 for budgetary reasons, Camp Low Country includes an old-brick manor house, guest houses, stables, carriage houses and dog kennels built in 1927 by New Yorker George A. Ellis, a founder of E.F. Hutton and Co., and his wife, a chewing gum heiress.

The property also has modern camp buildings, a dock on the Cooper River, a barn and a competition-size swimming pool.

The property was on the market for two years at an initial price of $7 million, but its value was appraised at $3.7 million before the local council announced the auction on July 1.

Camp Low Country, where scouts took part in activities ranging from riding horses to learning crafts, is just the latest to fall in the wake of a broad “realignment” by Girls Scouts USA, the national governing body of Girls Scouts councils.

The realignment that took full effect in 2009 consolidated local councils. It reduced their number by two-thirds, eliminated staff jobs and set new Girl Scout priorities for building leadership skills.

Girls Scouts has about 2.3 million youth and about 800,000 adult members nationwide, said Michelle Tompkins, spokeswoman for the New York-based Girl Scouts USA.

The organization is struggling with plummeting membership, a dearth of adult volunteers, declining cookie sales and a pension fund that is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

In March, Congress introduced pension relief legislation for Girls Scouts USA and similar nonprofit organizations.

Critics fear Girl Scouts, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2012, is abandoning its traditional mission of giving girls outdoor experiences. Opponents of the camp sales have sued local Girl Scout councils in several states.

The Girl Scouts’ new leadership programs focus on science, technology, engineering and math, financial literacy, and even bully prevention.

“It’s not just about cookies and crafts and camping,” said Loretta Graham, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of Eastern South Carolina. “Any successful woman is going to tell you she was involved in Girl Scouts. It’s about building those women.”

The house and the other 1920s buildings would cost about $2 million to renovate, said real estate broker Lisa Safford, who had listed the property.

“I think they’ll be lucky if they get a million for it,” Safford said. “The manor house would be absolutely stunningly beautiful if it was restored.”

Local council board member Elizabeth Hoffman learned to ride horses at the Girl Scout camp and later competed on a college equestrian team.

She won’t attend the auction, she said.

“My memories are wrapped up in the barn,” she said. “It might tear up my heartstrings too much to watch it go.” (Editing by Karen Brooks and Andrew Hay)

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