Multiple times a year, hundreds of FFA members from across the state make their way to the southern part of Johnson County.
They travel back roads and pull off State Road 252 to get to the FFA Leadership Center, a 170-acre property just east of Trafalgar.
“We are about the best kept secret in Central Indiana,” executive director Joe Park said.
The center opened in the 1970s as a place for the 270 FFA chapters across the state to find a place to convene, and it is known as the central place for members.
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The young men and women who spend a year as statewide FFA officers gather here. Students learn about FFA at the center while gathered around bonfires, sleeping in camp cabins and working through team-building courses tucked back into the woods.
“There was never a place all the kids could get together at the same time,” Park said.
The center has a $20,000 monthly operating cost to heat and cool the buildings, keep up the grounds and pay employees, forcing the board of directors, executive director and the center’s five employees to find a way to keep the leadership center in operation so that FFA members can continue to have a place to have conventions and retreats.
When the forefathers of the center had the idea, they may not have taken into consideration the amount of time and money it would take to keep a center like this afloat, Park said.
While in the last few years, the center turned a corner and is mostly able to maintain the leadership center, there is more work to be done, Park said.
About a dozen couples annually marry on a deck overlooking a lake and throw their receptions in the dining hall. Cub Scouts play at their annual camps. Churches book the indoor dormitories and dining hall for retreats. A marching band and drum corp from Wisconsin will have its band camp here, sleeping in the six cabins and practicing their show on a regulation size football field on the grounds.
“If it is legal and it turns a dollar, we are interested in it,” Park said. “It helps pay the bills.”
The FFA center is used about 275 days a year, and some events such as a monthly pork chop dinner, only last a few hours, said Christian Nix, client relations manager.
The center is struggling to attract business during the week. And with about 80 percent of the Leadership Center’s business being repeat, it can seem like the center is struggling to get the new customers needed to grow, Park said.
“It was a word-of-mouth type thing,” said Park. “Most of the customers we have, they don’t leave here.”
Attracting people who might want to use the center during the week has become a main goal, he said.
A memorial to young FFA members who have died was built and turned into a cabin on the grounds that rents for about $750 daily. High speed internet was added to the grounds last year, in hopes of attracting big businesses across the state to have employee work retreats.
“It works just as well for an adult organizations as well as for kids,” he said. “We are hoping to get more of that type of business through the week.”
Community members all across Indiana and Johnson County have done what they can to contribute to the center, Park said.
Johnson County REMC bought a large, inflatable slide that sits on the lake during summer months. A $400,000 grant from Eli Lilly will allow inner city kids in Indianapolis to spend time at the camp over three years. And when Park wanted a new sign outside of the center, a plea to FFA chapters across the state raised more than what was needed.
A $50,000 grant bought new windows and mattresses for the indoor dormitories, Park said.
“We have just had a lot of cooperation from area businesses,” he said.
All of the money and the upkeep of the center is to keep it open for FFA chapters, said Park.
Park taught agriculture for 42 years, spending all but one year of his career at Indian Creek High School.
He retired from teaching to run the FFA Leadership Center. He was on a committee to help steer the future of the center and saw the need to become the executive director to make sure the center would exist for future FFA generations.
FFA students need the grounds to get fresh air and connect in a way that seems to be lacking in this generation, he said.
“That is sort of why I did what I did,” he said. “There is a lot of demand on kids that there wasn’t 35 or 40 years ago.”
Chapters of FFA take pride in the center all across the state, said Joe Ramey, FFA adviser at Central Nine Career Center.
At least once a year, Ramey will take his chapter of about 35 students to complete a landscaping project to improve the property, he said.
And his students enjoy going to the center for retreats and educational seminars, Ramey said. Students need this center, he said.
“It is totally FFA, which means everything they do down there, they have FFA around them,” he said.