Sustained Outrage

Boy Scout Jamboree: What nobody’s talking about

Thousands of Scouts attend the opening ceremony for the 2013 National Jamboree Tuesday. Gazette photo by Chris Dorst.

As their 2013 National Jamboree got underway this week over in Fayette County, W.Va., the adults who run the Boy Scouts were certainly in no mood to talk about the reversal of their long-standing policy that banned gay kids from being scouts (the policy actually remains in place until January 2014) — and they seemed equally hopeful nobody would ask about their continued refusal to allow gay parents to be scout leaders.

And for the most part, it appears members of the West Virginia media were more than happy to oblige. Initially, it looked like the only reporter who would dare to bring up the matter was John Raby from The Associated Press, who produced this story on the subject:

Two months after a vote that accepted openly gay boys as Scouts, officials for the Boy Scouts of America say they’ve put the issue aside and are focused on their 10-day national Jamboree.

Some 30,000 Scouts and their leaders arrived Monday at the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in southern West Virginia. Thousands more staff and volunteers have been at the 1,000-acre site since last week.

Months of divisive debate led to May’s vote by the BSA’s National Council to allow gay Scouts to participate while keeping a ban on gay adults. The policy change is effective next January.

“We don’t see any changes in the way we do things at the jamboree at all,” Wayne Brock, the BSA’s chief executive, told The Associated Press. “We don’t see where it would have any kind of impact.”

With much negative attention directed toward the Boy Scouts in recent months, Brock said the hope is that the Jamboree proves to be a big, positive event.

“People are going to see kids getting together, having a great time and learning,” Brock said. “That’s what the public will see is what Scouting is really all about.”

There was a quote in Wednesday’s Gazette from National Jamboree President Larry Pritchard that is particularly interesting, given that the decision by the Boy Scouts to seek a private site for the event came on the heels of litigation over whether the U.S. military’s support for the Jamboree violated the the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from establishing a religion. Here’s Pritchard’s quote about the importance of the scouts having their first Jamboree on their own property:

That’s a big deal because now we can decide what we do and how we do it and where we do it. And I think you’ll agree that this facility is pretty special.

And then today, we saw how difficult it was for the Gazette’s David Gutman to get the scout leadership to answer a simple question about whether gay kids are welcome at this year’s event

Also getting little — if any — attention this week are questions about the finances of the Jamboree site, raised in a special report from Reuters headlined, A $439 million camp adds to Boy Scouts money crunch:

In the misty, oak-filled woods of West Virginia, the Boy Scouts of America are building their answer to Disney World.

Known as The Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, the 10,600-acre park opens Monday, when 30,000 scouts are expected to visit for the quadrennial National Jamboree. The Summit will have more than five miles of zip lines, a whitewater-rafting circuit, a 120-foot tree house and a stadium for 85,000 people.

The Summit is more than the ultimate Scout camp. It was envisioned as a way to shore up the finances of an organization burdened by a long-term drop in membership, costly sexual-abuse lawsuits and a bruising battle over whether to admit gay members. The park would bring in even more in donations than it would cost to build, Scout leaders concluded.

“The Summit gives us the opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to America and raise $1 billion for the best youth development in the world,” says a slide from a June 2010 presentation on the project.

But, Reuters reported:

It isn’t panning out that way. Costs are rising. Initially budgeted at $176 million through 2013, the Summit’s cost is now estimated to reach at least $350 million by the end of this year and $439 million by the end of 2015, according to Scouts documents reviewed by Reuters. To keep up, the Scouts issued new bonds last year – more than doubling their previous borrowing for the project.

The Scouts’ efforts to pay for the Summit are off target, too. Internal financial updates show that the Scouts’ national organization, based in Irving, Texas, was $108 million behind its capital-raising goal for the Summit as of the end of March. That was 32 percent shy of its projection of $342.6 million.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin welcomes thousands of Boy Scouts to West Virginia. Photo courtesy of the governor’s office.

Reuters reporters Robin Respaut and Brian Grow go on to explain:

The Summit shortfall is part of a broader financial crunch facing the Boy Scouts as the organization shrinks. That decline has been exacerbated by the protracted gay-membership battle. A compromise adopted by Scout leaders in May – allow gay youth, but not gay adults – appears to be doing little so far to ease the pressure.

Conservative troops are threatening to secede; one splinter group said this week it is forming a rival to the Scouts. Liberal troops are meanwhile establishing more-inclusive policies. Many corporate donors continue to sit on the sidelines, even as some regional Scout councils face severe deficits, according to Boy Scout executives and council members across the country.

“We cannot support an organization that has a policy that is discriminatory,” said Joanne Dwyer, a spokeswoman for CVS Caremark, which stopped all funding to local Boy Scout councils and the national organization a decade ago. (See related story.)

The bottom line, said Doug White, who teaches nonprofit management at Columbia University, is that the Scouts “have real problems.” The combination of the Summit fundraising slowdown, extra borrowing for the project and the financial impact of the gay-rights controversy “puts them in a very precarious position.”

What do the Boy Scouts have to say about all of this?

The Boy Scouts declined requests to interview chief scout executive Wayne Brock or national president Wayne Perry about the non-profit’s financing. In a statement, the Scouts denied that Summit fundraising is suffering.

“It is inaccurate to review this document and draw a conclusion that fundraising is behind schedule,” said Deron Smith, Boy Scouts spokesman. “Projections are just that, and serve as estimates that are adjusted throughout a project.”

Smith said the estimated $439 million cost of the Summit was “subject to change” and “contingent upon securing donor funding.” As for the May compromise on gay members, Smith said it is still too early to assess the impact on donors.