SIDNEY – During the past 77 years, four generations of the Wiggin family have been running the New England Music Camp to help people — mainly the well-to-do — explore their love of fine music.

Now co-director John Wiggin wants to expand the traditional summer camp’s role, bringing performing arts education to more central Maine children, but the wealthy people he has gone to for help have been slow to commit to the camp’s $12 million fundraising campaign.

Wiggin, speaking recently from the screened-in porch of an administrative building on the sprawling, lakeside camp, explained his vision for the Snow Pond Center of the Arts, which he already has begun to build, and other facets of the expansion.

When it comes to access to the fine arts, he said, there is a void in central Maine.

“If you look at the kids in the Boston area, the New York area, the Connecticut area, those kids get a very, very high-end arts education,” Wiggin said. “If the kids want them, those opportunities are there. They’re not in this area.”

In five years, he said, the camp will be open year-round, offering classes to college students, adults and local high school students, who might finish their school day at the Snow Pond Center. Snow Pond also is known as Messalonskee Lake.

Bette Bussel, executive director of the American Camp Association, New England, said that during the past five years, she has seen more and more camps diversify their offerings, many of them by offering off-season educational opportunities to children in their area. It works because it offers a valuable educational experience to schools, and a new source of revenue to the camps, many of which are seeing their traditional summer schedules being squeezed by shifting school schedules.

Wiggin said many people don’t appreciate the role a quality arts education plays in Maine’s economy.

“Our biggest export is our kids,” he said.

In order to keep people in Maine, he said, the state needs to be an attractive place to live, not just for retirees but for “the artists, the entrepreneurs, the businesses, the business professionals, the doctors, the lawyers.”

Those professionals, he said, are the very people who place a high value on the arts and cultural opportunities.

“To get them to live here, they need to perceive that there is really high-end education,” he said.

He pointed to expansions at MaineGeneral Health in Augusta and Waterville’s Hathaway Center and Robert LaFleur Airport as signs of economic progress, but he said arts education is a missing piece of the puzzle.

“A number of folks in the area have said, ‘You guys could be the tipping point that gets people, finally, to live here, if you are successful,’” he said.

In order to bring that vision to life, the New England Music Camp needs $12 million.

MILLIONS OF DOLLARS SHORT

From the very beginning, when the camp was a single lodge built in 1898, it existed to promote fine music, a special interest of the well-to-do.

In the early years, said Kimberly Wiggin, John Wiggin’s wife and co-director, the camp catered primarily to affluent Jewish families from the Boston area who traveled to the camp by train.

Over the decades, it has hosted world-class instrumentalists and benefited from associations with movers and shakers, including former Maine Gov. and U.S. Sen. Frederick Payne.

Now, four years after taking the reins in 2009, the Wiggins say the time has come for patrons of the arts to fund a major expansion that would bolster access for local Maine children.

The best chance a student from a less affluent background now has to get into the camp, which costs about $1,300 per week, is through a scholarship.

This year, he said, the camp gave more than $300,000 in scholarships to those who otherwise could not afford to attend camp, an amount that does not fully meet the need.

One of the priorities of the fundraising goal is to add $1.2 million to the scholarship fund, enough to make it self-sustaining and ensure continued diversity within the student population.

Wiggin has no money in hand yet, but he said it’s difficult to measure the progress because the campaign that he put together is not founded on bake sales and car washes that inch forward, one $5 donation at a time.

When seeking funds for a large capital campaign, camps often turn to parents and alumni because those are the people who can appreciate the value best, according to Lucy Norvell, director of public information at the camp association.

“They get what a tremendous, tremendous benefit it is to be a part of a camp experience, and they try to be as generous as they can,” Norvell said.

The New England Music Camp seems to be better-positioned than most for a major fundraising campaign, thanks to its specialization in the arts.

The income levels of families that send their children to camp is highly varied, according to Mary Ellen Deschenes, a consultant for Maine Summer Camps, an industry association that represents nearly 200 camps in the state.

“Some are for affluent families, but many are middle-of-the-road and low-income families, and there is a lot of variety within each camp,” she said.

The breakdown for the fundraising goal for the New England Music Camp shows it hopes to capitalize on the advantage by seeking $2.6 million from alumni and parents, $3.2 million from national corporations and foundations and $1.6 million from individual out-of-state philanthropists.

“The plan is very diverse and well-thought-out, and we have specific people and foundations in mind,” Wiggin said.

When describing his fundraising efforts, Wiggin returned to the same idea a few times, that a single wealthy donor can comfortably part with a million dollars or more — if that person sees the value of the cause.

For example, he is soliciting help from one former executive living on an island off Maine’s coast who, Wiggin said, “could easily write a check for a quarter of a million, five hundred thousand, and he wouldn’t miss it out of his checkbook.”

Wiggin said the fundraising campaign is not as far along as he thought it would be when he started actively planning the campaign in early 2012, with a planned end date in 2015.

After early rounds of phone calls and letters, he said he’s just getting to the point where he is sitting down for serious conversations with the pool of people he’s targeted.

“We’re actually engaged in the meetings,” Wiggin said. “Now it’s time.”

FORGING AHEAD

The family is trying to raise $4.6 million, less than half of the total, from within the state. Wiggin said he is working with local business leaders to target Maine foundations, businesses and philanthropists, and he plans to host benefit concerts and other fundraising events.

One limiting factor is that, despite their best efforts, the camp remains unknown to many Mainers, Kim Wiggin said.

“Nobody in Maine knows we’re here,” she said. “It’s hysterical. We joke that there are more people in Westport, Conn., who know about the New England Music Camp than in Augusta.”

Wiggin said he is so confident in the fundraising campaign that the camp has been moving forward with physical improvements to support the expansion.

Over the past two years, they have added weeklong camping experiences for college students and adults, necessitating facility upgrades.

“A bunk room is great for 14-year-olds where there’s 14 kids in one room on seven bunks,” Wiggin said. “Not so good for adults.”

In the past year, Wiggin has built a $500,000 boys’ dormitory and a $215,000 theater arts building. A $445,000 renovation of the recital hall is nearly done.

Work is also under way on a new education center and renovations to the girls’ dormitory and the dining lodge, projects that come with a total cost of about $3.6 million.

Wiggin said the improvements will bring in new revenue streams and will pay for themselves fairly quickly.

While the donation dollars have remained elusive, Wiggin said he is heartened by the validation he has heard while touting the expansion plan and its value to Maine.

“We’ve got this kind of universal yes, to keep going,” he said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@mainetoday.com