Dexter Statesman
The former Daily Statesman is now The Dexter Statesman.

Closing of GSA service center, Latonka, still possible

Wednesday, July 25, 2012
NOREEN HYSLOP-nhyslop@dailystatesman.com Local Girl Scout volunteer Malisa Mayo was one of several voicing her opinion regarding the suggested closing of the local Girl Scout service center during Tuesday night's public meeting in Dexter.

The fate of the Dexter Girl Scout Service Center and nearby Camp Latonka is as uncertain following a public meeting held Tuesday night in Dexter as it was two years ago when the rumors began to circulate that both entities might cease operation.

A crowd, far fewer in numbers than what appeared at a September 2010 meeting to discuss the same issues, gathered Tuesday at Wesley Hall to once again discuss issues involving the properties held by Girl Scouts of the Missouri Heartland, Inc.

Tuesday night's meeting was not so much a decision making platform as it was a discussion board. Anne Soots, whose new position as CEO of Girl Scouts of the Missouri Heartland was only announced Tuesday, headed up the informal gathering with about 50 men and women present. While most expected to hear the grim news that the local service center's days may be numbered, that wasn't the case.

Rather, Soots invited comments and suggestions from the attendees, nearly all of whom had worked closely with Girl Scouting as employees or as volunteers -- some for over 50 years.

Soots first presented an overview of the Missouri Heartland operation, its holdings over a 63 county area in Missouri, and a breakdown of property statistics, including annual expenditures, was distributed.

A June 2010 decision by the organization's Board of Directors that called for the closing of the local service center was reconsidered after a grassroots campaign began following the announcement. Since then, administration has worked on alternatives in an effort to deal with a flailing economy and lost revenue within the Girl Scout organization.

Throughout the month of July, Soots has been holding open meetings like the one in Dexter to garner input from the public regarding potential changes in the Girl Scout's operation in the Heartland.

While the September 2010 meeting was a highly emotional and contentious gathering, Tuesday night's was more of a sounding board, with the focus on looking at alternatives to closing the local service center and Camp Latonka.

Several suggestions were brought to the table during the two-hour meeting, all praising the work of local volunteers and employees of the local center, and all directed at maintaining the local service center and the nearby campgrounds.

A well received suggestion from local retired school administrator and former Board Member of the Cotton Boll Council Kent Polsgrove was to capitalize on the current Camp Latonka at Lake Wappapello.

"You've got a unique set up with Latonka," Polsgrove explained. "It would be a huge mistake not to keep it. It's waterfront property with tremendous potential." The problem, Polsgrove said, is development.

Polsgrove then suggested the Girl Scout organization look at a what he called a "cooperative venture" -- an expansion of Latonka with possible involvement of the Corps of Engineers and other entities to enhance the property and the opportunities at the campgrounds. It was further suggested that federal grants might be an option to improve the grounds and enable more opportunities at Latonka.

Looking at a cooperative venture with possibly the Water Safety Patrol, Dam and Engineering with the university in Rolla, the Dept. of Natural Resources, and others, the camping grounds, Polsgrove suggested, could thrive.

Once enhanced, the opportunities offered at Latonka could be advertised across several states, further increasing revenue.

Ann Bye, a Bloomfield educator with more than 50 years in volunteer work through the Girl Scout organization, told Soots she had witnessed a steady decline in recent years at Latonka.

"Camp Latonka has my heart," she told the group. "We had progression at Latonka until the decision was made to take the horses away. That hurt. We used to have canoeing and many other opportunities there. But what we've witnessed now is a downgrading of the facility."

Others attending Tuesday night voiced concerns regarding the distance volunteers and employees of the council would have to travel, should the local service center shut down. One volunteer strongly opposing the shutdown emotionally stated that Girl Scouting in Stoddard County would cease if the decision was made to shut down the local service center and in its place open a "storefront" facility in Cape Girardeau, which is among the suggested plans.

"We have to look at the demographics," another woman attending voiced. "Girls need us in this area. We have a high at-risk population with more children in foster care than in any county in Missouri. We need to provide these girls and all girls with opportunities that they cannot receive elsewhere. You need to reconsider (closing down the local center)."

Local longtime Girl Scout volunteer Malisa Mayo challenged Soots to explain why the governing board would consider selling off the Dexter property when it is paid off only to then purchase another property.

"It's debt free. Why would the Properties Committee consider closing it only to go into debt again?"

Then ensued discussion regarding the extenuating circumstances involved in the possible sale of the current Dexter property.

Soots explained, in a conversation that followed with Presiding Commissioner Greg Mathis, that a $122,600 Community Development Block Grant from the Missouri Dept. of Economic Development made the building of the local center possible. That money, with some depreciation applied, would have to be paid back should the property sell. Accounting for the depreciation, Soots said, the amount that would have to be returned would currently be around $90,000.

Additionally, the local Regional Healthcare Foundation gifted the property where the center is situated. The agreement between the Foundation and the Girl Scout council grants the Foundation first rights to purchase the facility if it were to sell, and that price, Soots explained, would be a "discounted" sale price.

The local property was assessed two years ago, Soots said, at $535,000.

Yet, with the stipulations regarding the sale of the local holding, the option, Soots said, is still on the table.

The Tuesday night forum served as a means to gather public opinion regarding the potential sale of Girl Scout properties. That information garnered, Soots explained, will now be presented to the Properties Committee. A final decision regarding the sale of properties will be made at the November meeting of the Girl Scouts of Missouri Heartland's (formerly the Cotton Boll Council) Board of Directors.