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Deer Lake One Year Later: Still a Cause for Celebration

By Clark Judge

(September 16, 2023) — When a local non-profit purchased Deer Lake last year for $4.75 million, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called it “a profoundly important moment.” The deal not only protected the 255-acre property from development; it virtually assured its preservation in perpetuity.

More than that, however, it was an unexpected outcome.

The property was owned by the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and it accepted a $4.625 million offer in February from a private developer. But the deal was tentative, with the Scouts setting a future deadline for interested buyers to surpass that figure.

That’s when Pathfinders, Inc., the local non-profit, initiated an aggressive fundraising effort that ultimately led to the property’s purchase on September 16, 2022 – or one year ago Saturday. At that time, local and state dignitaries joined in a news conference on the Deer Lake campus to celebrate a remarkable grassroots campaign.

“That wasn’t just a come-from-behind victory for Deer Lake,” said state Attorney General William Tong. “This was a Hail Mary.”

That was then. This is now. And now, on the first anniversary of the Deer Lake sale, there will be no news conference, no state or local dignitaries making speeches and no messages from the Connecticut Yankee Council.

“We have no plans, other than this article,” said Ted Langevin, president of Pathfinders, Inc. “That’s how we’re going to celebrate. We will look back and be forever grateful and appreciative for what we’ve been able to accomplish the past year.”

And what was that? Let us count the ways:

  • Held an October 30, 2022 open house, Pathfinders’ first public event on the grounds of its new acquisition. The non-profit wanted to share Deer Lake with the community, and it succeeded. Approximately 1,500 persons appeared at the Sunday event.
  • Continued usage by camping groups, including the Boy Scouts with $30,805 netted. “Folks who were using Deer Lake are still using it,” said Langevin, “as are a few more groups.”
  • Substantially reduced its loan debt. When Deer Lake was acquired, much of the $4.75 million – in fact, $1.8 million — was raised by loans. That figure has been reduced by $1 million in donations, so that $800,000 remains before all loans are satisfied.
  • Established a Capital Improvement Fund of $240,000 in donations for future work on buildings and facilities.
  • Hired Brian and Jenn Carroll to replace Mark and Patty Clifton at the Deer Lake day camp. Jenn worked with outgoing camp director Patty Clifton this summer, while Brian succeeded Mark Clifton as camp ranger. Mark Clifton passed away unexpectedly in late February.
  • Ran another successful summer day camp, with 1,498 camper weeks for the five sessions (three of two weeks each, two of one) from June through early August. “We were so full,” said Patty Clifton, “that we had a waiting list. Sadly, we couldn’t take everyone. But what was so exciting was that we had the whole property to ourselves without other programs on the other side of the lake. It was a joy to have the entire property, where every camper was able to go anywhere they wanted without having to worry about others.”
  • Hosted the Burn Foundation camp for the first time. The Foundation, which supports and benefits child burn victims, spent a week at Deer Lake that included 30 children and 60 volunteers. “It was inspirational,” said Patty Clifton. “An incredible experience.” So incredible that Pathfinders has invited the Foundation to return next summer.
  • Acquired new maintenance equipment, some of which was donated — including lawn mowers and a floor cleaner.
  • Hosted a September 10, 2023 Music Festival, with 19 acts booked for an all-day event. A second festival is planned for next year.
  • Celebrated Earth Day, with volunteers leading guided walks on trails and A Place Called Hope on site with a demonstration of raptors. Another celebration is planned for April 22, 2024, with an open house held in conjunction.
  • Two weddings were held on the property, with another booked for later this year. A weekend Yale Retreat also occurred at Deer Lake last spring. The three events netted $7,200, and more weddings are planned as far in the future as 2025.

When Pathfinders first held its first news conference at Deer Lake on a frigid afternoon in late January, 2022, the chances of all this happening seemed remote.  The message that day was as cold as the temperatures: Save Deer Lake … or else. But then, more than 1,400 donors from 87 Connecticut towns, 34 states and four countries responded, and the result speaks for itself.

Deer Lake was saved, and a community rejoiced.

“Two years ago, the possibility that Killingworth could save Deer Lake from development seemed remote,” said Cathy Iino, Killingworth’s First Selectwoman for 12 years and a member of Pathfinders’ board of directors. “Then Pathfinders stepped forward and committed itself to preserving this piece of vital space – and, one year later, succeeded in doing so. Killingworth is so grateful that contributors from far beyond the town helped achieve this significant environmental goal.”

Sen. Christine Cohen was one of the state officials who supported Pathfinders’ effort from beginning to end, and she was there one year ago when the sale became final.

“It’s simply remarkable,” she said on September 15, 2023. “A group of folks with one very critical commonality, their love of Deer Lake, came together to ensure that its true spirit and purpose could live on. Together, they pulled off the unlikely – purchasing these idyllic grounds and continuing the camp and programming for all to enjoy.

“I was happy to work with them and am incredibly grateful for their persistent efforts that led to such a tremendous property acquisition. Theirs is a story that should be shared and now becomes part of the rich history of these pristine grounds that are Deer Lake.”

To be clear, while the property has been sold to Pathfinders, the group still does not own it – not until the remaining $800,000 in loans are satisfied. But for the first time since a fundraising campaign was launched in March, 2022, the finish line is within sight. If and when all debts are repaid, the curtain will then drop on one of the most remarkable grassroots efforts in Connecticut history: Against all odds, Deer Lake will be preserved forever.

“The acid test,” said Dave Gumbart, president of the Killingworth Land Conservation Trust, “will be in 50 or 100 years when the people of Killingworth or Connecticut look back and say, ‘Are we glad we did that?’ Inevitably, you know what the answer is. It’s going to be: ‘Hell, yes!’ What happened here is definitely one for the ages.”

Photos by Clark Judge

 

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