When campers drive up to Epworth Forest Conference Center this summer, they might not recognize the place.
The United Methodist Church-affiliated summer camp and retreat on Webster Lake in North Webster has a new entrance and access road to bring campers to the 200-acre property from Epworth Forest Road instead of through a neighborhood along Wesley Lane.
But that project is just part of ongoing improvements to camp facilities and programming, says Ryan Gernand, marketing manager for Impact 2818, which oversees several church-related camps.
The goal is to steer a venerable tradition that started in 1924 with the purchase of property around what was to become Webster Lake into the 21st century, he says.
In 2009, two new residential lodges were constructed, giving campers "more modern amenities and the creature comforts that everyone expects these days," including air conditioning and a better ratio of showers and bathroom facilities to campers.
"There's more attention to the aesthetics of things," Gernand says. "Back in the '60s, it was more of a 'Hey, let's put up a cabin' kind of thing when you talked about a camp. Now, it's taking camping to a whole new level."
The new residences, Duecker Lodge and Fenstermacher Lodge, also are closer to the dining hall, making it more convenient – especially when the camp hosts sessions for adults with special needs, Gernand says.
Previous residences required campers to walk nearly a half-mile, he says.
Also new this year is what Gernand calls "a giant 50-foot pendulum swing" that tethers campers via a harness to two telephone pole-like structures.
The curriculum for sessions for high school campers also has been revamped, he says. The new format stresses how to live as a Christian rather than making a decision for Christ, he says
The sessions also have been renamed – the camp for high schoolers is now called That Thing.
Overall, Gernand says, $3.5 million in improvements have been made, including about $900,000 for the entrance and access road alone.
That project, started last spring and finished a few weeks ago, had been on the drawing board as part of a long-range plan since the 1960s, he says. It was finally completed when a donor from Fort Wayne contributed a large sum to kick-start fundraising from more than 150 donors.
The entrance was dedicated by Bishop Michael Coyner of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church on April 28.
Supported by about 1,200 congregations, the camp has five sessions this summer. It costs about $300 per person for a six-day stay, but many congregations subsidize stays for their youth members.
The facility also hosts retreats and rallies year-round and was the site of the Epworth Forest Choir School for many years.
Change isn't over at the camp, Gernand says.
It's hoped that the new entrance will pave the way for a new worship facility/auditorium and another new lodge for visitors, which have numbered in the hundreds of thousands over the years, he says.
About 1,200 campers are expected this summer.
"The new entrance is more functional and gives us a more secure facility," he says. "When you come up to it, you really realize you're at a camp."