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Buyer plans to turn Lake Erie camp into 'quality residential community'

The owner of Try-It Distributing Co. wants to convert a longtime former summer camp in Evans into a new residential community – the latest example of housing growth along Lake Erie and transformation of historic camp properties.

Eugene Vukelic and his family are planning to put up single-family houses along the beach, with tiered town houses nearby offering views of the sunset and the lake.

"We will develop it into a quality residential community, very measured in density," Vukelic said. "It's going to be good for Erie County."

Vukelic said his plans are to turn the camp into a residential community that is not "elitist" and won't include commercial buildings.

"There's no rush to judgment on this. We plan to develop it into something pretty nice," he said. "We want to do it right. We don't want to do something that will change the culture of the area."

But he's also not in any hurry, noting that it'll be months if not longer before anything happens. A caretaker who lives at the camp with his wife and daughter will "continue on and be a watchdog there until we decide what to do," Vukelic added.

Eugene Vukelic. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Vukelic, who is chairman and CEO of the Lancaster liquor distributor, bought the 15-acre waterfront property at 8462 Lake Shore Road from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Angola, which had operated the camp for over 90 years before closing it in 2016.

Acting through Eagle Associates of Niagara Frontier Inc., a holding company for Try-It's real estate, Vukelic paid $1.575 million on Friday, according to documents filed in the Erie County Clerk's Office.

The site includes 1,200 feet of Lake Erie waterfront, eight cabins for lodging, a dining hall, a recreation hall and an in-ground pool. Those facilities don't appear to be in Vukelic's long-term plans.

“We are very pleased to have found a buyer we believe will put the property to good use while respecting the history of its role in our organization’s service to the Western New York community,” said Mark E. Zirnheld, the society’s CEO and executive director. “Proceeds from the sale will be used to further the good works of the society.”

Rural and lakefront summer camps, once a mainstay activity for children and their families for eight weeks in July and August, are being increasingly squeezed by rising operating costs and dwindling attendance.

That's prompted multiple nonprofit organizations in recent years to make the tough decision to sell camp properties.

In recent years, for example, the the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo sold its Lakeland overnight camp in Franklinville and its Centerland camp in Elma, and has relocated to the JCC's Getzville campus. Other religious and secular groups, including the Girl Scouts, have also unloaded camp and retreat properties.

The sale of the Angola camp is in an area that has seen an expansion of lakefront living in recent years, particularly on Lake Shore and Old Lake Shore roads. Ellicott Development is planning to put up residential housing at the site of the former Mickey Rats beach club and bar not far from the St. Vincent de Paul campsite.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul operated its summer camp for almost a century, taking in nearly 50,000 youth between the ages of 8 and 13.

A Google satellite image shows the St. Vincent de Paul summer camp on Lake Erie in Angola not far from Bennett Beach. (Google Maps)

The property was originally part of the Bennett Homestead and was run as a resort starting in the early 1900s until the Society of St. Vincent de Paul bought it in 1933. Members of the society created the camp to respond to children's needs during the Depression years, bringing them together with each other with "fresh air and plenty of good food" at a time when that wasn't guaranteed for low-income working families, Zirnheld said.

"It was evident to our members then when they were doing home visits responding to other requests, that something else could have a positive impact to those we served," Zirnheld said. "The property allowed the Society to do that – it was the physical embodiment of that concern and care to our neighbors in need."

The program lasted well beyond the Depression, World War II and postwar years, before the camp closed in August 2016, as the number of campers had declined. The camp hosted 426 children in 2006, but was down to 256 by 2015, and it operated at a deficit since 2011.

"We believe that we have found a kindred spirit in the new owner of the property who will do their best to respect the traditions we established on that property while allowing us an opportunity to continue our service and possibly expand our mission," Zirnheld said.

This isn't the first real estate venture for the Vukelics, whose Eagle Associates company owns Try-It's distribution center in Lancaster and a facility in Saratoga Springs for Saratoga Eagle Sales & Services, a Try-It subsidiary run by Eugene Vukelic's son, Jeff.

The family has "dabbled a little bit in selective developments" from time to time, including partially developing Eagle Heights in Orchard Park.

"We've been very selective about it, but we kind of do it in a measured way. We're not really a full developer," Vukelic said. "We like to do things that are good for the community and good for ourselves. Erie County has been so good to our community that if we can do anything to enhance Western New York, we do our best to do that."

In this case, Vukelic cited both the location and the "intrinsic value" of the land, calling it a "choice piece of property" and also noting its history. "There's something spiritual about that," he said. "It's really a special place."

The property is located on Grandview Bay, which Vukelic called "The Bay Beach of the States," with its "great beach, great water and great fishing." When it came up for sale, he said, "we decided to take a look at it, and we liked what we saw."

"It'll be a centerpiece for the American side of Lake Erie," he said.

Vukelic said he "got a very, very warm reception" after speaking with Town of Evans Supervisor Mary K. Hosler, and hopes to "get some good support" from the town board and the broader community.

He noted that the property has been off the municipal tax rolls for 90 years, so "they could see some good things happening."

"It's going to be a while before we do it right," he said. "We want to make sure the community there is on board."

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