WEST GREENWICH – The University of Rhode Island has decided to close its W. Alton Jones Campus and Whispering Pine Conference Center, citing financial hardships dating back several years.
“The decision to close them in early July comes after many efforts by the University to improve the financial situation,” according to Marketing and Communications Director Linda A. Acciardo.
Despite the health and safety directives that were enacted this year to help summer camps stay in business, Acciardo said “the university determined it would be cost prohibitive to try to maintain these activities in the current financial climate.”
Last week, W. Alton Jones Summer Camp, which has called the 2300-acre preserve of forests, lakes and farmland home for the past 55 years, learned it would not be able to offer an overnight program this year. Assistant Director John Jacques was disappointed to share the news with families and community members, but was hopeful camp would resume next summer.
“It will be difficult to know that this summer the main lodge and cabins of the Environmental Education Center will remain empty and quiet for the first time since being built in 1965,” Jacques wrote in a Facebook post to the W. Alton Jones Camps page on June 3. “We hope that next summer the Environmental Education Center will once again be filled with children, laughter, and outdoor learning.”
Although the university had originally decided against offering an overnight program this year, “due to a number of unresolvable issues,” the popular summer camp remained hopeful that day programs might still be possible.
On Wednesday morning, after hearing news of the university’s decision to close W. Alton Jones, a message of disappointment was shared on the summer camp’s website and Facebook page.
“We were ready,” the post read. “We understood the guidelines. We had excited staff and campers ready to get back outside. But, today we were informed that we did not receive university approval. We were prepared to offer both day and overnight camps this summer. Sadly, URI will not allow either to operate.”
The original posting has since been deleted, though the one that’s been put up in its place also informs parents and guardians that they can soon expect refunds.
“We are hopeful that this situation will turn around so that Alton Jones can continue to connect youth with the natural world for another 55 years and beyond,” the original post stated, pointing out that many businesses are struggling with a loss of income over the past several months.
Many community members – from former campers and employees, to concerned parents – shared their disappointment with the decision to close the camps on Wednesday.
In less than 12 hours, more than 1,700 of those community members have signed a petition on change.org, asking URI President David Dooley, “along with the administration, to rethink their actions.”
The summer camp adheres to the mission of creating “exciting learning experiences in the natural environment, which lead to a heightened sense of responsibility towards improving the quality of life on our planet,” according to petition creator Kathryn Pope.
“With the closing of the camp, we believe that the university is ignoring and disqualifying the importance of this statement,” Pope wrote.
According to the university, maintenance crew will remain on site for the time being, and when possible, employees will be placed in available positions at other campuses to minimize employment impacts from this decision. Seventeen staff members are currently employed at the campus.
Going forward, the university will assess what to do with the large preserve of land.
*This article was updated on June 17.