In a reinvented corner of Historic Fort Snelling, kids can solve challenges in the virtual reality-inspired Leadership Portal. They can climb an indoor rock wall, sack out overnight in what used to be a cavalry drill hall and gather around a fireplace built with local limestone and timbers.
On Saturday, Northern Star Scouting — the regional Boy Scouts of America organization — will officially open the doors of its final phase of Base Camp. It’s a $26 million urban adventure and leadership camp just off Hwy. 55 that’s open to the public, including school, youth and corporate groups.
“We want the entire community to benefit whether or not they ever join the Scouts,” said Base Camp Director Kathryn Wyatt. “It teaches teamwork, problem-solving and outdoor skills.”
The idea of Base Camp began to take shape more than a decade ago when Scouts leadership decided that if they couldn’t persuade every child to join scouting, they’d offer a scouting experience to every child.
“It was a big, audacious goal,” said Scouts spokesman Kent York. “It’s taking the scouting experience and offering it more broadly in the city.”
In 2008, the Northern Star Scouts purchased the cavalry drill hall at Fort Snelling for $4.3 million from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The organization spent an additional $4.7 million transforming the 35,000-square-foot building into the TeamBuilding Center that opened in 2010 and welcomed the public — a new strategy for the group that had, in the past, reserved their camps primarily for Scouts.
“We wanted to be a resource for the whole community. It was new to us. We didn’t know if people would come,” York said.
More than 300,000 kids and adults have flocked to the space since it opened, drawn by its massive indoor rock climbing wall that mimics the bluffs along the St. Croix River at Taylors Falls, a high ropes course, indoor archery range and ample space for indoor camping and games.
Nearly nine of 10 of its young visitors are not Scouts.
“We have been thrilled by the response,” York said.
Inspired by the success of the first phase, crews broke ground on the 42,000-square-foot Leadership Center in 2017, which was finished this summer. It includes classroom and meeting space available to the public, including a dramatic lodge-style entryway with seating made from limestone quarried in Wisconsin; a front desk made from a fallen elm retrieved from Powderhorn Park, and end tables made from stumps harvested from other Scout camps. A birch bark canoe hangs above the fireplace.
Outside groups including Friends of Fort Snelling, outdoor retailer REI and Mortenson Construction have already booked rooms in the new facility for parties and events.
While the entry is a nod to the Scouts’ legacy and connection to nature, its Leadership Portal offers youth a state-of-the-art virtual reality-style experience, with 360-degree video projections and a wry virtual guide named Rose. In the center of the room is a 7-foot-long tabletop tablet, which staffers compare to an iPad, usable by up to eight people at once completing timed challenges.
The building includes the Northern Star headquarters and a courtyard with native trees and grasses and a bronze statue of a young Ohiyesa, a Santee Dakota who grew up to become a physician, writer and national lecturer. Later known as Dr. Charles Eastman, he helped found the Boy Scouts of America.
Northern Star Scouting CEO John Andrews said opening Base Camp to everyone was in the works long before the national Boy Scouts organization announced it would extend membership to girls.
This week, fourth-graders from Sand Creek Elementary in Coon Rapids were practicing archery and rock-climbing at Base Camp.
“We love it for the team building. It’s a great way to get to know each other and to work together,” said teacher Amy Mess. “I also love that it pushes them to challenge themselves.”
Northern Star Scouting is among the top five largest scouting councils in the country with 32,400 youth members, more than 12,000 adult volunteers, eight camps and a $13.3 million annual operating budget.
Base Camp has been paid for via donations, York said. Northern Star Scouting will sell its old St. Paul building and will place the proceeds in a building maintenance fund and Base Camp operations.
The group is celebrating the grand opening with an open house and family fun day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The event is free and includes complimentary lunch of hot dogs and chips from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
A free showing of the documentary film “Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian” will start at 1 p.m.