If you have visited the Rock Point Property in Burlington in the last year, you may have noticed that changes are afoot at this nonprofit natural area and conference center owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. New signage around the property is the first clue to visitors – newly branded logos and directional indicators welcome you to this property that has long been a “hidden gem” on Burlington’s waterfront.
Rock Point’s Executive Director, Paul Habersang, says that the new signs are a symbol Rock Point’s desire to welcome more visitors – from near and far – while also preserving the fragile ecosystem on which Rock Point Property sits. These signs, says Habersang, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improvements that are happening on the property.
Rock Point Property encompasses 130 acres, just north of North Beach on Lake Champlain in Burlington. Originally gifted to the Episcopal church as a permanent home for the diocese and for educational purposes, the mission of the property has expanded to include a focus on building community beyond the church as well. The property now includes a conference center, summer camp, community gardens, solar array, and a trail system open to the general public. It is also home to partner organizations like the Rock Point School and Crow’s Path (an alternative outdoor education program).
Over the last decade, the Board of Rock Point Commons recognized a growing need to support the long-term sustainability of the property and began to make systemic changes to ensure that future. Habersang, hired in October of 2019, is one of those changes. Whereas before the organization had been run by a team of committed people wearing various hats, the staff is now formalized under the leadership of Habersang, the Executive Director. Carrie Williams Howe, Rock Point’s Marketing & Communications Director, was also hired to strategically develop the organization’s outreach and manage client interactions at the conference center, and the caretaker’s role was expanded to include a more comprehensive property management and security role. Other staff on Rock Point’s team manage bookkeeping, land use, and the summer camp.
“The staff is simply more unified and professional, and we work as a collaborative team more so than we have in the past,” says Habersang, “and this makes us more effective as we look toward the future.”
Habersang and the Rock Point team have made dramatic improvements to the Conference Center itself, both hidden and visible to visitors. From newly painted and furnished rooms, to de-cluttered meeting spaces, and a new dishwasher, the Center aims to be more inviting to guests in a physical sense. A new venue management software system implemented by Williams Howe aims to make client interactions more smooth and transparent. With 90% of the Conference Center’s clients coming from the nonprofit and education fields, staff point to a fine balance between necessary improvements and maintaining the simple, rustic feel of Rock Point.
“It should be a welcoming place and affordable to those who are using this center as a place to do their good work,” says Williams Howe, “but we also need to run the Center at a professional level so that we can make the best use possible of this resource, for as many groups as possible.”
Rock Point’s Summer Camp is also making improvements to its programming. The almost 90-year-old camp is holding on to its roots as a supportive, family-like environment, but also bringing in a focus on the natural world through environmental activities. This year, the camp announced additional day camps to respond to the needs of working families, while also maintaining their affordable overnight programs.
Julie Garwood, Rock Point’s Summer Camp Director, says that Rock Point Camp needs to evolve with the times and meet families where they are at, but also hold onto its roots as a camp that was build around mindful practices and care for community.
“As we continue to grow our camp and offerings,” says Garwood, “we remain committed to ensuring that each child is known and seen at Rock Point. Our unofficial motto, ‘big camp experience, small camp atmosphere’ is evidenced through our 5:1 camper to staff ratio, our emphasis on mindfulness, and our variety of outdoor activities that help campers experience summer as it is intended.”
Rock Point’s ongoing focus on maintaining its natural environment has been strengthened through two conservation easements accomplished in partnership with the Lake Champlain Land Trust. By placing 114 acres into permanent conservancy, the two organizations, along with the Vermont Housing Conservation Board and the City of Burlington, have partnered to ensure that Rock Point will not be lost to development. Trail work at Rock Point continues to be a focus, ensuring that visitors are not only welcome at Rock Point but seen as part of the effort. Rock Point is also a part of Burlington Wildways, a larger Burlington network aiming to link and conserve open spaces throughout the City, and welcomes volunteers as trail stewards.
Signage and safe trails are a priority when it comes to guiding public access at Rock Point, says Craig Smith, a long-time employee. “We want to welcome the public as much as possible, but also need to ensure that our visitors are educated and see themselves as stewards of the land and property.” To that end, visitors are required to obtain a guest pass via the Rock Point website and to follow posted trail rules whenever visiting the property.
Habersang reiterates that all of these changes, though surprising to some who have been coming to Rock Point for decades, are a necessary part of ensuring its future. “We want this place to be around for our community for decades to come, and in order to do that we have to make some important changes to how we operate,” he says, “Those changes are what will help us survive and continue to meet our mission to be a ‘welcoming sanctuary in the heart of downtown Burlington’.”