Throughout history, the often-repeated stories of immigrants coming to the U.S. from foreign lands to pursue their dreams in business and in life has been the embodiment of the American Dream.
But while the U.S. campground industry is filled with examples of native-born entrepreneurs, husband and wife teams and families who have built successful campgrounds and RV resorts from the ground up and grown them into multigenerational family businesses, it’s much harder to find examples of immigrants who have done this, particularly immigrants from the Far East.
In this respect, Dr. Nak Shim and his wife, Sue, South Korean immigrants who own and operate the 1000 Islands/Association Island Kampgrounds of America (KOA) on Lake Ontario, are truly unique. So, too, is the story of how the Shims got involved in the campground business and how their son, Dr. John Shim, has followed in his father’s footsteps, both in the medical profession and in the campground business, in addition to earning an MBA and developing a software company called Entangle Media (www.entanglemedia.com), which specializes in developing logistics and event management software for all kinds of companies, including campgrounds.
The Shims immigrated to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea, in 1964, when the U.S. was seeking additional physicians. Shim initially worked as a resident doctor for New York University. After completing his residency training in orthopedics, Shim was asked to go to Bluefield, W.V., where he provided orthopedic services for a multi-specialty medical group. His patients included people from rural communities who suffered injuries in West Virginia’s coal mines.
Shim subsequently relocated his family to Auburn, N.Y., near Syracuse, in upstate New York, where he established a private medical practice. But after retiring in the late 1990s, the Shims decided to purchase Association Island, a 65-acre island in eastern Lake Ontario and build a campground on it, which they subsequently opened as the 1000 Islands/Association Island KOA in 2002.
Now in their 80s, the Shims’ son, John, a Tampa, Fla.-based orthopedic surgeon, is helping them run the park as a part-time CEO, a role he took on in December 2017 after campgrounds and other businesses along Lake Ontario experienced flooding due to the extraordinarily high lake levels that have been taking place throughout the Great Lakes region in recent years.
The younger Shim has been advising his parents not only on ways to protect their 18-year-old island campground against flooding but to make it more appealing to today’s families.
“We’re revamping our restaurant and activity center,” he said, “and we’re about to open an 18-room motel,” which would diversify the park’s business base.
But Shim is also quick to point out that his parents didn’t necessarily build their campground to make money.
“They built it out of love,” he said. “It was an immigrant’s dream come true: Moving from South Korea in 1964, they built a life that culminated in the purchase of the island. They wanted to share their love of this amazing place.”
A love of the 65-acre island, located in a scenic location off the northern tip of Stony Point on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, and a love of the island’s history.
The island was initially developed as a summer camp by the owners of the National Electric Lamp Company, who were essentially a consortium of light bulb manufacturers. These manufacturers subsequently changed their name to the National Electrical Lamp Association (NELA), which served as the inspiration for the name, Association Island.
General Electric took over NELA in 1912 and was similarly captivated by the allure of Association Island, which it developed into a company retreat and conference center by 1927.
For the next three decades, Association Island would become “the site of General Electric’s pioneering in the field of management and executive development,” according to Sept. 22, 1959 report in the Kings County Chronicle in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Newspapers document the island’s frequent use by General Electric as a venue for its many high profile guest speakers. Thomas Edison, who invented the electric light bulb, visited the island in 1916, according to a June 5, 2018, historical report on NewYorkUpstate.com. Other famous guest speakers include Admiral Richard Byrd, who gained fame by becoming the first aviator to fly over the South Pole in late 1929. Admiral Byrd’s visit to Association Island is documented in a July 29, 1930, report in The Ithaca Journal.
As its communication and staff development needs changed, General Electric eventually donated Association Island to the New York State YMCA in 1959. YMCAs across New York used the island for conferences and summer camps until 1968, when the New York State YMCA said it was selling the island to a private developer, Little Kildare Inc., which planned to build a causeway or land bridge to the island and eventually subdivide it into lots it could sell to private owners, according to a Sept. 11, 1968, report in The Post-Standard in Syracuse.
While the causeway was built, the island was subsequently managed by the Association Island Recreational Corp., which instead developed the island as “a non-profit, cultural and recreational center,” according to Dec. 28, 1973, report in The Post-Standard. The island was widely used as a training center for American teams competing in sailing events in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Kingston, Ont.
By the time Shim’s parents acquired Association Island in the 1990s, many of its original buildings remained in place, although they were also in great need of costly repairs and restoration work.
“Unfortunately, the original boathouse, which included a theater and dance hall on the second floor, no longer existed,” the younger Shim said. “But there is still a very large town hall with a theater room. In the future, we hope to restore this historic building.”
The Shims also invested in new infrastructure, including a sewage treatment plant, as well as a water treatment plant, both of which the Shims were required to install to make their campground compliant with the Clean Water Act of 1972, which made it illegal to discharge any water with pollutants into navigable waters.
But the Shims persevered and opened the KOA in 2002. The park currently has 307 RV sites, four tent sites, five waterfront cottages and two cabins on the interior of the island, as well as a 68-slip marina.
The Shims have also used the Association Island KOA as a venue to celebrate their citizenship as well as U.S. efforts to assist the Republic of Korea in the 1950 to 1953 war against Soviet-backed North Korea, the first military battle of the Cold War.
“My parents have always been grateful to the U.S. military as they witnessed first hand the bravery and sacrifice of the American soldier during the Korean War,” Shim said, adding that his parents have used the Association Island KOA to host USO events in honor of veterans and active-duty military members.
In 2013, in fact, the Shims hosted both U.S. and Canadian veterans during a special campground event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. The keynote speaker was Hejin Kim, consul general of the Consulate of South Korea in New York. Linda produced a video of the event (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSgkCyjZbAM&feature=youtu.be) with Arirang, a 600-year-old Korean folk song, playing in the background.
But while the Association Island KOA features a meeting hall, Wi-Fi service and other amenities that today’s campers expect, in recent years, Shim has also grown to appreciate his father’s wisdom in making another costly but perhaps less noticeable investment, raising the mile-long causeway to the island by another 2.5 feet with rock blasted from the east side of the island.
“Thank God he did that,” Shim said of his father. “Otherwise, there would have been no access to the island in 2017 and 2019.”
Indeed, Lake Ontario has experienced record levels of flooding in recent years, which the younger Shim and other coastal campground operators attribute to government mismanagement of water levels. But while the Shim family’s investments in raising the causeway 2.5 feet ensured continued access to Association Island even during the floods of 2017 and 2019, excessively high lake levels still caused considerable damage to their campground.
“Because of the flooding, it affected our electrical system,” the younger Shim said. “It knocked things out left and right. Our phone wouldn’t work at times. The electricity would go out and it would affect our water treatment systems.”
Last summer, in fact, the power went out for 22 hours on the Fourth of July, the busiest day of the season.
“We were within hours of the health department telling us we had to shut down the whole place,” Shim recalled.
To mitigate the situation, in the fall of 2019 the Shims invested $80,000 in three commercial generators, which are large enough to ensure that the campground would have enough power to run its water and sewage treatment systems in addition to satisfying other campground power needs.
“Right now (in late April), lake levels aren’t that bad. But what is going to happen in the next few weeks?” Shim asked. “Lake levels are typically their highest in June. All of the lake water from Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Erie has to go through Lake Ontario to get to the St. Lawrence Seaway. All those lakes are at historic highs right now.”
Shim believes the Association Island KOA is the largest campground to be affected by the rising waters of Lake Ontario. “We probably have had more impacts than other parks since we are probably the only island RV campground dedicated 100%t to camping,” he said. “But we have mitigated it pretty well, despite all of the flooding.”
Indeed, in 2017, the year of the first of a series of floods, Association Island KOA’s business levels were down about 20%. By 2019, however, reservations were actually up.
This year, both Shim and his father are more worried about the COVID-19 pandemic than the possibility of further flooding.
“Our biggest concern this year is the virus,” the younger Shim said. “New York state is still under lockdown. But we are cautiously optimistic about opening on May 15. We are located in northern New York and have been fortunate to be in a part of the state with very low levels of infections.” (The park was open by late May.)
But as COVID-19 restrictions begin to loosen, Shim said, “We are doing what is best four our guests and our staff, and we will comply with the state and CDC recommendations.”
“Due to social distancing guidelines, we will close our bathhouses, pool and camp store,” he said. “We will ask all guests to use their credit cards only, as we cannot accept cash at this time. We will ask our guests to prepay their stay and call to finalize their payment via credit card. We will also ask our campers to sign the waivers for entry into the campground, as well as waivers for pets, future boat rentals and golf cart rentals using our AI Camping App https://www.koa1000islandsrv.com/ai-camping-app/, which my software company developed. We currently ask all guests to call the office for reservations as we must explain the status of the island and the impacts on guests who do not have an RV with a bathroom.”
Shim has also developed a backup strategy to protect campers who reserve waterfront sites with a sunset view, reserving interior island sites on higher ground in case lake levels submerge his waterfront campsites. This way, even in a worse case situation, campers could still have a place to camp on the island close to the sites they reserved.
Shim recommends that park operators who face a risk of flooding along Lake Ontario or other Great Lakes use what remains of the springtime to fortify their shores. By late April, the elder Shim had supervised staff elevating the lakeside causeway wall by another 3.5 feet.
“Watch the weather patterns,” Shim said. “For us, west winds mean more potential flooding. If the weather forecast is not favorable, have backup sites ready in reserve to accommodate your waterfront guests in case they need to be moved.”
Advance communication with guests is also key.
“Communicate real-time with your current and future guests about weather conditions,” he said. “We developed our own mobile phone app that gives us the ability to send text and email messaging real-time.”
While hopeful that the U.S. will see a relaxation of the social distancing rules this summer, Shim noted that some of Association Island’s campground facilities and activities may not be available due to government regulations.
“We think we will still have a reasonable season as folks want to get out and experience nature while in the comfort and safety of their RV,” Shim said, adding, “We are prepared both for possible flooding and the virus, and welcome those who want to experience amazing sunsets and the beauty of Lake Ontario.”