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Scouting for new members: Boy Scout, Girl Scouts look to ramp up enrollment after schools resume

More than a year after COVID-19 began to take a toll on scouting, troop leaders are looking forward to the coming school year to recruit new members.

Last year across 27 Boy Scouts of America units in Blount County, enrollment was down 46%, with enrollment for Cub Scouts, in kindergarten through grade five, down 61%, according to David Williams, scout executive for the Great Smoky Mountain Council.

Girl Scout enrollment in the East Tennessee region was down about 30%, Director Heather Mazzouccolo said.

The New York Times reported July 1 that combined nationwide, the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts have lost about 1.9 million members since 2019, with youth Girl Scout enrollment down about 30% and BSA falling by more than twice that.

While the organizations offered online programming during the pandemic, Mazzouccolo noted, “that wasn’t what they were thinking about when they think about the Girl Scout experience.”

75 years at Springbrook

Last month, Girl Scouts celebrated their 75th year of day camps at Springbrook Park.

“Our numbers were definitely down,” said Sarah Shepherd, a troop leader and assistant to the camp director, estimating a total of about 75 participants, compared to about 150 in a typical year.

During the past school year, she said, “Most troops had difficulty meeting at all.”

Shepherd’s troop of high schoolers met in person at a church fellowship hall, where they spread out and wore masks, and one attended virtually. The meetings weren’t as frequent, however, and they weren’t able to take trips or do other typical activities because of the pandemic.

Regular activities for the 28 Girl Scout troops in Blount County, including the father-daughter dance and mother-daughter tea did not happen.

“Our numbers are trending upward,” Mazzouccolo said last week, with girls beginning to renew memberships before enrollment this fall.

“We’ve seen our summer camps are almost completely full,” she said and there are a few spots open this month at Camp Tanasi, the Girl Scout camp near Norris, Tennessee.

Williams said BSA camping numbers are down this summer because enrollment has been down.

Maryville Troop 88 leader Andy Luttrell said they took 18 members to Camp Buck Toms in Rockwood this summer, fewer than a typical year.

Shepherd said the Girl Scouts in Blount County are organizing an outdoor event for mid- to late August, and both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts hope again this year to reach families through flyers and events at schools.

New options

Both organizations continue to focus on core missions with new types of opportunities.

Girl Scouts, for example, focus on life skills, entrepreneurship, the outdoors and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). “There are hundreds of badges available for girls in all of the categories,” Mazzouccolo said.

Newer badges range from one for citizenship to a partnership with North Face for a series of outdoor high-adventure activities, including trail running and rock climbing.

Boy Scouts programs focus on character development, leadership development, citizenship training and personal fitness through a range of programs beyond the typical Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, now including STEM Scouts for grades 3-12, as well as Sea Scouting focused on aquatics.

While younger BSA programs separate activities by gender, programs such as Venturing — outdoor activities for ages 14-20 — are coed.

During the pandemic, online merit badge sessions did have some advantages, such as brining in more subject matter experts and drawing participants from across the country, Williams said. One girl in Knox County took every online opportunity and earned 78 merit badges in two years, he said.

Still, they are looking forward to returning to more normal operations. “Kids need to be outdoors; they need to be with their peers,” Williams said.

Blount County Commission, Property Assessor's Office deal with fallout from Tim Helton's resignation

Following Blount County Property Assessor Tim Helton’s resignation earlier this week, the county now faces the task of replacing a crucial elected official.

Helton was reelected to the position in 2020 for a four-year term. With his resignation set to go into effect Aug. 31, county commissioners will need to find someone to take up the mantle until an election to select his successor can be held.

“The County Commission will vote to accept the resignation at next week’s meeting,” explained Blount County Administrator of Elections Susan Knopf. “Then they will appoint someone to fill the vacancy until next year’s election.”

The position will be included on the county primary ballot on May 3 and will be filled by the winner of the Aug. 4, 2022, election. However, Knopf explained the 2022 election will only be for the two years remaining in Helton’s term, rather than the office’s full four-year term.

“The office will be filled for a two-year term, then there will be another election in 2024 to get back in line with the presidential election cycle,” explained Knopf. “That election will be for the regular four-year term.”

Anyone wishing to run for property assessor will need to pick up a petition, which will be available starting Dec. 20, barring any delays due to redistricting. The candidate qualifying deadline for the May primary is Feb. 17.

Before any of those steps can take place, Blount County Commission will need to formally accept Helton’s resignation. Then commissioners can start the process of appointing an interim property assessor to serve until the election. Officials say they are currently “fine tuning the details” of what that process will entail.

During Tuesday’s commission workshop, Chief Deputy Property Assessor Trevor McMurray submitted his name for consideration for the interim position.

McMurray has worked in his current position for three years and has been employed at the property assessor’s office since 2002.

While speaking to the commission, McMurray shed some light on the challenges the property assessor’s office will face in the coming months.

“During this brief interim period, the office will begin a 2023 reappraisal,” McMurray said. “We all understand how extremely important this process is to the county’s tax base.”

McMurray went on to highlight his previous experience with the process and why he believes he would be the right person to lead the property assessor’s office through the task.

“As chief deputy during the last reappraisal, I have the knowledge and experience necessary to get the process started and going in the right direction,” said McMurray.

Helton’s resignation has also taken an emotional toll on the office, according to McMurray. That’s something he hopes county commission will consider when considering candidates for the interim.

“Because of the emotion that these events have generated, I feel at this time the office needs continuity and consistency, and I am the person to provide that,” said McMurray. “The current staff is hardworking and resilient and I feel like I have a good rapport with them. I believe we will continue to work well together during this brief interim period and prepare ourselves for what lies ahead.”

McMurray also praised Helton, and stressed the fact that the employees working in the office need time to adjust in the wake of his resignation.

“It’s a short year from here and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said McMurray. “But I think the staff needs an opportunity to decompress a little bit and process what’s happened with Mr. Helton. We appreciate Mr. Helton and we’re sorry to see him leave.”

Why is a New England Patriots plane parked at McGhee Tyson Airport?

Blount’s McGhee Tyson Airport recently became a parking spot for an iconic New England football team’s branded 767 plane, and residents are wondering why.

According to Patriots’ Vice President of Media Relations Stacey James, team planes are used throughout the offseason, but usually not by the team.

“We use a charter service that helps operate the plane,” James said in a phone interview Thursday. “During the offseason, we allow them to use the plane for other chartering purposes. And in this case, the majority of flights they do in the offseason are with the U.S. Department of Defense.”

He added the Patriots don’t officially confirm what each plane is used for but, “in all likelihood,” it was being used by the DOD.

Military officials confirmed the aircraft arrived recently at the Alcoa airbase and that it was being used to transport troops.

This is nothing new.

Patriots team planes have been used in the past to transport troops, something James explained is a great thematic pairing.

“It’s a pretty cool thing to get on,” he said. “With the patriotism of our military, to get on a Patriots plane for their domestic and even international flights, the feedback’s been very positive.”

A fringe benefit of having the plane in the air during the offseason is maintenance: Planes need to keep flying to stay healthy.

“Like a car, you don’t just leave it in a garage for six months and then plan on driving it around,” James explained. “You’ve got to keep it running.”

Even though the commercial airport shares a footprint with the 134th Air Refueling Wing at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, spokesman Lt. Col. Travers Hurst said the plane was not being used to transport troops from the 134th.