Aspen Deaf Camp closing campus, suspending operations for a year; nonprofit faces $145k tax lien

Erica Robbie
Snowmass Sun
A group of middle-school age children at Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing work on a team building exercise July 22, 2017.
Anna Stonehouse/Snowmass Sun

Aspen Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is suspending its operations for a year and closing the doors to its Old Snowmass campus in an effort to focus on a “reinvention,” the 51-year-old nonprofit announced today.

“The bottom line is that we need money and a new operating philosophy. This year has thrown many, many, many challenges our way,” Katie Murch, the camp’s marketing and strategic director, said in a text message Nov. 21. “We only had three full-time staff managing everything and it was very exhausting.”

According to a federal tax lien filed in August, Aspen Camp for the Deaf owes more than $145,000 in payroll taxes from September 2014 through 2016.

Board president Ryan Commerson and Murch said the camp is working with the IRS and “cannot confirm any details until we have more information.”

The Deaf Camp’s difficult year started in January when Airbnb renters ransacked and vandalized the cabins over the X Games weekend. Camp officials estimated there was $4,000 in damages, but a fund-raising campaign brought in $10,000. The extra money was slated to go to the camp’s scholarship fund.

Commerson said they still are owed $25,000 from parents who have not paid for camp tuition. The nonprofit also is pursuing “$17,000 from a partner who owes us that and has not paid,” Commerson said but declined to name that debtor. “It affects the bottom line.”

After the Airbnb incident in the months leading up to summer, a total of eight staff members backed out of their contracts, Murch said. Then, the Lake Christine Fire that engulfed Basalt Mountain in July “scared our parents and campers,” the statement from the Deaf Camp today said.

The annual Deaf Camp Benefit only broke even this summer, despite seeing more visitors than ever, Murch said.

New regulations prevented the use of the camp’s challenge course and “several other incidents” also hampered the nonprofit and its work, the statement says.

“It was too much,” Murch said in the statement. “Our team and resources were strained. It affected our focus and the relationships that we value so greatly in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Aspen Deaf Camp Facility Director Zack Sisson in the statement expressed concerns with an aging campus and the rising cost of living in the area. “Our buildings are over 45 years old and are costing us a lot of money to maintain or upgrade,” Sisson said, pointing to pricey plumbing services and an $850 monthly internet bill as examples.

He added that, “Our staff cannot afford to live off campus which in turn affects a work-life balance.”

As a result of Airbnb renters’ “continued irresponsible behavior,” the camp will no longer rent its cabins, which brought in sustainable revenue for the nonprofit.

“Airbnb did not support our effort to pursue accountability of those guests. We didn’t want to put the community, especially our neighbors, at risk,” Murch, who is Deaf, wrote via text. “So we are shutting Airbnb down on December 1. It will hurt our revenue stream, which is one of the many challenges we face.”

The Deaf Camp board and staff members met Nov. 10 to discuss the nonprofit’s options moving forward. They decided to suspend operations for one year “while focusing on reinventing the camp,” the statement says.

“We have a new vision we want to pursue. We want to make exponential impact given that camping and youth-related trends are really changing,” Murch wrote via text. “We also want to step up our involvement and contributions to the local community — it’s overdue. The new vision a really cool one. We’ll see how much the community supports it.”

Asked what the camp’s revamp will entail and who is involved, Commerson responded via email, “Diverse visionaries with background in education, administration, advocacy, and other non-traditional ideas will take part in the evolutionary process to reinvent the camp.”

Commerson, who also is Deaf, said the nonprofit is seeking communal involvement and support in the form of ideas, resources and investments.

“The investment will be used to initiate a capital campaign so we can design and build a facility to foster the development of the deaf youth to become innovators, intellectuals, and more importantly, healthy well-rounded contributors to the world.”

Since opening its doors in 1967, the camp has welcomed more than 21,000 deaf people from 47 states and 12 countries, camp director Lesa Thomas told the Snowmass Sun in an interview in July of 2017. Thomas left the organization within the past two months, Murch said.

In June 2018, Thomas said the camp was on a mission to raise its profile and connection in the community, noting then, “I feel we’re poised to come back.”