First in a series on the AOAA, which officially opens Saturday.

WEST CAMERON TOWNSHIP - As co-owner of Bressi and Martin Real Estate, Joe Bressi acquired a piece of property along Upper Road about eight years ago with the intention of subdividing the wooded area into 50 building lots.

When construction of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) was announced, he quickly changed his plans, and he's now in the process of building one of the largest campgrounds in the area.

Bressi's 123-acre property, about five miles west of Gowen City, is a densely wooded mountainside nestled near Pennsylvania State Game Lands and the AOAA, making it the perfect location for hunters and ATV riders visiting the area.

Originally, Bressi only owned the area to the south of Upper Road, but when a strip of land with two houses went up for auction on the north side, he quickly snatched it. Now his property forms a land bridge between the Game Lands and the AOAA.

Bressi's Earthday Campground will accommodate both RV and tent users and feature a series of trails so outdoor enthusiasts can traverse between game lands and the AOAA.

Personal connection

According to Bressi, both of the houses on the site were in poor condition when he purchased them last spring. He began renovation work on them almost immediately.

On the larger of the buildings, the Barry House, fresh white siding was installed and walls were removed to create open spaces. Large chunks of coal were sealed together with gray mortar to create a frame around the doorway leading to a sweeping porch.

The interior is furnished with enough log-framed beds to sleep eight. Bressi's daughter, Maria Bressi, said she plans to add more decorative touches, like framed artwork, to the rental before the first occupants arrive.

They hope the rental will fetch $325 per day on the weekends or $1,400 per week.

Work on the Barry House was personal for Bressi. In the late 1970s, he lived down the road from the property while he worked as the head teacher at West Cameron Township Elementary School. He grew to know the Pickering family, who lived in the house at that time, and was greatly saddened when Barry Pickering, age 11, died when he rolled over his grandfather's lawnmower on the steep bank by the road.

Bressi was so struck by his memory of the boy and the accident that he decided to name the house in tribute.

"Barry Pickering's on my mind because he was a great kid," said Bressi.

Although renovations on the smaller house are not yet complete, Bressi plans to name it the Raymond House for Barry Pickering's grandfather, Raymond Kerstetter.

Bookings start

Bressi said people have already contacted him about renting both houses, and the Barry House is booked for several weekends this season.

The sloped field behind the house was recently cleared of brush and debris, including several truckloads of garbage.

"People dumped all over the place," said Bressi.

Now that the area has been cleaned up, grass is beginning to sprout on the hillside. Animal-friendly plants like oats that Maria selected to attract deer and other wildlife are also growing.

Across Upper Road, brush clearing is still taking place, as well as timbering to make room for the campsites. An unpaved road leads back into the forest where PPL Electric Utilities and Kreco Electric Company are working to build electrical infrastructure.

Bressi said his decision to use local companies is intentional.

"I'm spending my money locally, which has a ripple effect on local contractors and so on," he said.

When the campground opens, he will again look locally to fill caretaker and management positions.

"We're going to hire as many neighbors as we can," said Bressi.

The site further down the hill and south, which actually fronts Lower Road, is closer to completion, although the process was slowed by a late spring ice storm that brought down trees.

Bressi imagines this area as a place for RV campers, with some sites designated as pull-through spaces for large trailers. Elsewhere on the land, more primitive campgrounds will welcome tent-users.

"The size of the sites vary and the topography is diversified," said Bressi. "We can build to suit when they start coming."

Once the electrical work is complete, which Bressi expects to be early this summer, Earthday Campground will officially welcome its first guests.

"We're hoping in 30 days this will be ready to rent," Bressi said Tuesday.

A long-term vision includes adding more rental buildings to the land.

"We foresee the possibility of putting up small cabins," he said, noting that each might accommodate three to four people.

Additionally, in anticipation of groups visiting the AOAA for special events, Bressi has constructed a pavilion large enough to seat 250 people.

Work near creek

Bressi has left the 13 acres he owns on the south side of Lower Road untouched for now, but he has many visions for its future.

The land runs along the State Game Lands edging Mahanoy Creek and has a floor of coal silt 10 to 12 feet deep.

Bressi will be excavating the area before anything can be built there because the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said the creek picks up the silt during floods, which is extremely harmful to the environment.

To help with flooding and erosion, Bressi also plans to build either a pond or wetlands.

Some of the anticipated work, like the wetlands project, appears to be a labor of love for his daughter, who is passionate about the environment. When Bressi outlines a vision of "treehouse" accommodations for this area, he quickly notes that the idea came from Maria.

Shot in the arm

Maria, who recently became the majority stakeholder in Bressi and Martin Real Estate, will be managing Earthday Campground.

A steel bridge linking Lower Road to the State Game Lands is currently closed, but Bressi believes it may be reopened once visitors start arriving in the area.

With the official opening of the AOAA park set for Saturday, he is optimistic that brighter days are to come for the region.

"This will be an economic shot in the arm for the area," said Bressi. "I really think the AOAA is going to bring a lot of prospective riders and campers to the area."