Kenton City Council will be asked Monday night to become a part of a plan to transform an underutilized city park into a gathering place for veterans. Organizers of Camp Jacob Parrott believe the facility could reach the lives of thousands while also providing a unique opportunity for economic growth for Hardin County.
The Rev. Scott Johnson and members of Warriors First plan to seek permission from council to develop Saulisberry Park into a facility which will not only continue to offer camping and fishing to the general public, but will welcome veterans and their families to camp, fish, hike and bond around a campfire at no charge. The park, home to France Lake, is connected to the city through a narrow strip of land although it is about two miles southwest of Kenton off Ohio 67.
The idea of the camp came from discussions between Johnson and his friend, Ret. Col. Jim Ramsey, a Hardin County native, regarding the needs of veterans. A camp, they agreed, would provide a environment for vets to rest, restore and re-engage with each other. The camp would be faith-based and would provide counseling for those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI), but would be open to any veteran and his or her family.
The pair was searching for a location for the project and shared their vision with Jon Cross, president of the Hardin County Chamber and Business Alliance late last summer. A problem they were facing, said Cross, was finding property to purchase to build the campgrounds. “Sometimes we forget what is right in front of you,” said Cross. He suggested Saulisberry Park/France Lake as a possible location. A quick visit to the site convinced them the seclusion of the picturesque lake and the existing camping area made the location perfect, said Johnson.
The property is owned by the City of Kenton and Cross and his staff worked with Warriors First and city officials in determining if the city would be willing to sell or lease the land. “We are advising for a long-term lease,” said Cross.
For many years, he said, the city has lost money or broken even at Saulisberry Park. If a private organization came in and retained the services available to the public, including the Lake of Lights holiday lighting display, while improving the infrastructure and landscape, it would be an improvement for the city, said Cross. “Plus we don’t want the organization to have to take money out of its pocket to buy land,” said Cross.
The first phase of transforming Camp Jacob Parrott from a dream to a reality is securing the lease, said Johnson. Once that has been completed, the Warriors First volunteers will work with the Poggemeyer Design Group in developing detailed plans for the site. “We want to show the public our master plan,” said Johnson.
Those building plans include hiking paths, campsites, more restrooms, more boat ramps, an amphitheater for outdoor concerts, a chapel, meeting house and a series of cabins where families can stay.
Poggemeyer knows a lot about securing federal and state grants, said Johnson. That will help with Phase II of the project: finding funding.
Warriors First will seek donations and sponsorships from church organizations, veterans groups, corporations and individual gifts. There are a lot of defense contractors in Ohio, noted Johnson. “We want to get payroll deductions available so the money is not coming from one person, but a little money is coming from a lot of people,” he said.
The group will also seek donations from corporations or groups willing to sponsor a cabin or contribute to the construction of the amphitheater or chapel.
Once Camp Jacob Parrott is built, said Johnson, there will be activities for the vets and their families. They might enjoy the solitude of France Lake or take part in the endless destinations within three hours of Kenton, such as the NFL Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, professional sporting events, the Columbus Zoo or one of the two nationally-know theme parks in Ohio. “It is a never-ending list,” said Johnson.
To make the outing more affordable to the vets, Warriors First volunteers plan to visit each of the destinations to secure discounts or free admission for the families. Those who will be eligible for the special admission rates will be given dog tags identifying the participants and when they visited Camp Jacob Parrott. Those dog tags will be made by the Kenton Jr. ROTC students, which will raise funding for their organization.
The influx of guests to the county will mean an increase in need for restaurants and hotels, he said. With vets expected to come not only throughout the state, but the nation, the potential is unlimited, said Cross.
In addition to the established destinations offered within the reach of Kenton, the camp itself could be the goal of trips for travelers throughout the area. Next to the campgrounds is the Hardin County Airport. Johnson and Cross can envision the runways being filled with crowds for hot air balloon festivals, vintage war plane shows or Civil War reenactments.
“We have lot of flexibility and elbow room for this,” said Cross. “But everything takes a back seat to the mission of helping veterans. The economic development is not the driver here, the mission is the driver.”
Down the road, said Johnson, if Camp Jacob Parrott is a success, Phase IV of the project is to see it replicated at other locations throughout the nation. He has been in contact with other areas who are anxious to see what happens in Kenton.
Should the plans not pan out as expected, said Johnson, Saulisberry Park will revert to what it is now at no cost to the city, which would retain ownership of the land. “We have no idea how many lives will be bettered if we build this and take a risk,” said Johnson.The local economic impact of the camp is potentially endless, said Cross.