Common Ground Center marks two decades

STARKSBORO — Tucked away in the rolling hills and babbling brooks of Starksboro is one of Addison County’s better-kept secrets — but Jim Mendell doesn’t want it to stay that way.
Mendell and his wife, Peg Kamens, are co-founders of the Common Ground Center, a family recreation retreat on a sprawling 700-acre parcel that straddles the towns of Starksboro and Monkton. Since 1994, the nonprofit has hosted children’s camps, family retreats, private parties and school groups.
Visitors have come from 40 states and 17 countries, but Mendell said he hopes the center’s 20th anniversary celebration May 10 will attract more people from Addison and Chittenden counties.
 “It will be a chance for people who are local to come and see who we are,” Mendell said. “A lot of people don’t know about us.”
Mendell and Kamens hosted retreats for nine summers at Camp Hochelega in South Hero before the center purchased the site in Starksboro in 2004. Mendell said the move was a group decision.
 “From the beginning, it was a nonprofit that was cooperatively run,” he said. “We had 50 people look at the site before we bought it.”
The center hosts a variety of camps and retreats throughout the summer. Among them are Camp Common Ground, an inter-generational family camp; Camp Kaleidoscope, for families with children on the autism spectrum; Overcoming Barriers, for families experiencing divorce; Camp Outright, for LGBT youths; and others.
The center also hosts private events, and was the site of 15 weddings last year. It has also hosted school groups from Beeman Elementary in New Haven all the way up to the University of Vermont and Middlebury College.
The quaint campus is located on the site of a 19th-century farm off Tatro Road south of Starksboro village. It includes a farmhouse, two barns, a dining hall, the “Eco-lodge,” several rustic cabins, a recycled playground and tennis courts.
Mendell said the cabins were built using lumber from the property.
 “We actually got a portable sawmill,” he said. “We got the wood off the land, and the kids brought it down — it was quite a scene.”
The Eco-lodge, a weatherized building with rooms, plumbing and a full kitchen, was completed in 2011 and allowed the center to become a year-round operation.
Eight solar trackers on the property produce more energy than the site needs — Green Mountain Power sends Mendell a rebate.
Some 550 acres of the property, which extends to the top of a ridge that offers views of the Adirondack Mountains, are conserved by the Vermont Land Trust. Kamens said this area, which includes hiking trails and a beaver pond, will forever be preserved as an Addison County treasure.
“No matter how the county develops, we’ll always be an island, a preserved place,” Kamens said.
While the center hosts events throughout the year, summer remains the busiest season. To run all the camps and programs, Mendell and Kamens hire a seasonal workforce. The property is permitted to host 160 overnight guests, and 200 people during the day.
“In the summer, we’re pretty much full every weekend,” Mendell said.
The 20th anniversary celebration kicks off at 4 p.m. this Saturday with self-guided tours of the site, followed by a children’s concert featuring local folk musician Chris Dorman. The event will also feature a contra dance called by Lausanne Allen, drumming with Dew B. Wilde and music by Pete Sutherland and Friends. The festivities will conclude with a musical tribute to the late Rachel Bissex, onetime musical director for the center.
Mendell said the event will be a reunion of sorts with visitors old and new.
 “We have these people coming back from 20 years ago, and now they have children and grandchildren,” Mendell said.
And speaking of succeeding generations, Mendell and Kamens are in the process of handing the reins over to another dynamic husband-and-wife team: Neily Jennings and Connor Timmons.
The pair joined the staff of the center in 2011, after meeting Mendell and Kamens at a conference in Montreal. Kamens said the two couples went out for dim sum, and realized they had much in common.
“Connor was talking about his experience with camps and we thought, ‘My god, this guy totally gets what we do,’” Kamens said. “We’d been looking for someone to help shape the future of what we do, so that worked out great for us.”
Jennings and Timmons shared a common vision for the center, and stressed the importance of reaching out to local communities.
“You’d be surprised by the amount of people who’ve never heard of us, considering the amount of traffic we have come through here,” Timmons said. “We do so many events that are close by, and there are a lot of opportunities for people.”
Jennings said the 20th anniversary celebration is a great event for county residents to attend, since it is different than much of the programming at the center.
“In a lot of our programs, people stay for a week,” she said. “This is a unique event for us, in that you can just drop in for a night, which is why we want to promote it locally.”
Timmons said the Common Ground Center is a great recreation destination for Champlain Valley residents because it is within a short drive of many towns and cities.
 “It’s the ultimate staycation because it’s so close but so far,” Timmons said. “If you live in those areas, this is a different scene.”
Mendell echoed that sentiment.
“Between Middlebury and Burlington, we feel like we’re in the perfect location,” he said.
Learn more about the Common Ground Center at www.cgcvt.org.

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