TIMEWELL, Ill. -- A local foundation worries that a request for demolition bids could jeopardize its hopes to buy and continue the ministry of Jensen Woods Camp.
But the church conference behind the bid request says it has no plans to demolish any part of the Timewell camp, even though a potential buyer might.
The Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church approved selling three of its camps, including Jensen Woods, in 2015. That decision spurred a group of local Christians to form the Jensen Camp Foundation with the goal of buying the 550-acre property, but several offers have been rejected by the conference's board of trustees.
"We're kind of at a stalemate now," said Doug Tenhouse, a foundation member.
An ad placed in the Aug. 23 issue of the Brown County Democrat Message "created a stir," Tenhouse said, by seeking bids for tearing down "wood and concrete structures/buildings" and excavation work at the camp.
Tenhouse said the bid covers the treehouses, the horse arena and buildings and the shower house.
"We as a group are deeply saddened by the thought they would go in and remove those buildings," Tenhouse said. "Basically Jensen Woods is known for the treehouses and the horse program. To think of those buildings being taken down is heartbreaking to us."
Paul Black, director of communication ministries for the conference, said the ad was placed at the request of several potential buyers looking into the property.
"Their use for the property would be such that they would not need the buildings, and in order for them to be fully informed as to the cost they would incur in order to make the land ready, the conference board of trustees was asked to find out what the cost would be," Black said. "The conference is not entertaining the notion of demolishing buildings, nor are they going to spend money to do so."
Black confirmed that the foundation had made several offers to buy the camp but said no offer is on the table.
Both sides had independent appraisals done of the property, and the last offer "was less than the appraised value," Black said. "If the foundation has another offer to make, they can make it through their legal counsel, and the trustees certainly will look at it."
Both appraisals came in at about $2.2 million, he said, which is the asking price for the property, down from the initial $2.5 million price.
Black said two or three parties are interested in the camp property and estimated demolition costs were critical before they could make an offer. Conference trustees will open the bids Saturday, then share them with the potential buyers.
"More than likely, that type of cost would be assumed by any potential buyer rather than by the conference," Black said. "It's very similar to buying a house. If you don't like the color of the carpeting, it's not the seller that usually replaces the carpet. It's usually the new buyer."
The foundation retains right of first refusal on any prospective sale of the camp as part of a 2015 agreement with the conference.
"That doesn't mean necessarily we wait on the consummation of the deal if they don't have funds available or financing in place," Black said. "If a bona fide offer comes in that we receive, we then say we're willing to accept this offer, can you match it?"
Tenhouse said the foundation realized the sentimental attachment to the camp and its buildings but also has a fiscal responsibility to its supporters and donors and cannot pay a premium for the property.
"Not only would we have to find funds to purchase the property, but we would have programming costs, salaries, upkeep. We're going to be dependent on our funding sources, our supporters. It's a rather large undertaking," he said. "We're still optimistic something can be done, but we're also trying to be realistic."
The conference's decision to close and sell Jensen Woods followed more than a year of work with Kaleidoscope Inc., an Ohio-based camping consulting firm. Kaleidoscope said the conference's five camps need a combined 25,000 to 30,000 user days -- or three meals and one night's stay -- a year to support a basic operations budget. In 2014, the camps reported a combined 17,072 user days. That year, Jensen Woods had 407 user days.
"We understand the emotional ties to the camp ... but multiple sites create additional cost," Black said. "We're able to offer a camping program at two (conference-owned) sites and another site that we lease for our camping ministry much more cost-effective than we can operating five sites."
Jensen Woods and the conference's Living Springs Camp at Lewistown, listed at $1.4 million, remain on the market. A third camp, Epworth at Louisville in Clay County, was sold to a Christian school.
Tenhouse said the foundation is not trying "to go against" the conference but thinks Jensen Woods has untapped potential.
"We just feel that it's been underutilized," he said. "We feel that the property could be used to help not only youth, but adults, veterans, used for marriage retreats, people who have gone through traumatic events. There's something healing about being out there in nature unplugged. We feel as though once it's sold, it's gone, and we're giving every effort we can to try to preserve it."