Editor’s Note: Woodall’s Campground Management says its final goodbye to 2011 with this roundup of the top RV park and campground stories of the year.
Weather is always a big factor for campgrounds: good weather can make a season, bad weather can kill it.
But the weather and some remarkable natural disasters in 2011 were unusually unkind to campgrounds, so much so that it stands head and shoulders atop the list of Top Stories of 2011, according to the staff of Woodall’s Campground Management.
Natural disasters accounted for a whopping $35 billion (and counting) in damage to all U.S. property, and campgrounds were among their major victims.
They ranged from flooding along the Missouri River, tornadoes in the South, Upper Midwest and Northeast, major wildfires in the Southwest and Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in the East in late summer. A rare earthquake even caused some scattered damage to campgrounds in Virginia just before Irene struck.
Here’s a closer look at some of the tragedies that struck the nation’s campgrounds this year.
A deep melting snowpack and heavy May rains prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release record amounts of water from reservoirs in the upper Missouri River basin early in the spring. Peak releases from the dams were nearly double the previous record as the corps flushed excess water. Campgrounds from North Dakota to Missouri were affected by the huge water flow. In South Dakota alone, damage to 41 public parks was placed at $9 million. That doesn’t include private parks, such as Larson’s Landing in Yankton, S.D., which was inundated for more than three months.
The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season was a study in contradiction. The usual targets in the Southeast were spared, but Irene paralyzed the Eastern seaboard in late August and left behind devastating and deadly flooding across the Northeast. The storms wiped out the lucrative Labor Day weekend for many campgrounds.
Tropical Storm Lee followed two weeks later, threatening the big RV show in Hershey, Pa.
It was the sixth straight year without landfall of a major hurricane, yet Irene was one of the costliest storms in U.S. history and killed at least 47 people. Irene was not considered a major hurricane because it was not a Category 3 when it made landfall in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Tornadoes damaged campgrounds in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Alabama and Missouri, and campground deaths were reported in all four states. Prominent among the serious damage was Village Green Family Campground in Brimfield, Mass., which was decimated when a tornado struck there on June 1, killing one camper and destroying 95 of the 97 RVs parked there. The loss of life would have been far greater had the storm hit on a weekend when the campground was busy. Fellow campground owners in the Bay State quickly joined the rebuilding effort through fundraisers and volunteer labor.
Major wildfires struck eastern Arizona and western New Mexico (the Wallow Fire) in mid-summer and the Texas Hill Country (Bastrop Fire) north of Austin in August. The Wallow Fire scorched 841 square miles and closed numerous public and private campgrounds. Wildfires were fueled by excessive drought conditions. As recently as late October, 91% of Texas, 87% of Oklahoma and 63% of New Mexico were in extreme or exceptional drought. The unusually dry conditions also extended into Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Other Top Stories
Voters did not reach a consensus on the order of the other top stories of the year so we’ll let you decide. They follow, in no specific order of importance.
Paul Bambei made an instant impact as the new president and CEO at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). He quickly negotiated the purchase of new office space in suburban Denver, affiliated with a nationally known Washington law firm (dropping longtime consultant David Gorin), beefed up the ARVC staff and then focused, through staffer Barbara Youmans, on rebranding the annual convention. The convention became a “conference,” the seminar offerings were doubled and costs to attendees were slashed to raise the attendance. A new monthly newsletter, titled The ARVC Voice, was introduced in the autumn. Bambei also negotiated a major deal with DIRECTV for ARVC members by year-end. All steps were aimed at pumping new life into the group, which had suffered continued membership erosion in recent years.
At the Savannah conference, one of ARVC’s loudest critics showered rare praise on the association and complimented its hire of Bambei. Parallel with the obvious changes were behind-the-scenes strategic task force meetings held during the year to focus on state and national associations’ roles and responsibilities, communications and membership value. Subcommittees met at Normandy Farms in Foxboro, Mass., at ARVC’s Denver headquarters and at Camping on the Gulf Campground in Destin, Fla. Recommendations were presented at the ARVC conference in Savannah in November.
ARVC reached out to the nation’s state parks via the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD) in the summer and offered them free trial membership for the remainder of the year. The move was designed to expand ARVC membership, and it did in fact attract more than 180 state parks from several states. ARVC’s Jeff Sims spoke at NASPD’s convention in September, where a memorandum between the two groups was signed. It remains to be seen how many state parks will join on a paying basis in 2012. ARVC’s move, however, was not well received by some private state associations, notably New York and Missouri, which claimed admitting public parks was counter to their bylaws. Campground Owners of New York (CONY) was the most vocal of the state associations that responded publicly to ARVC’s state park overtures. CONY ultimately withdrew from ARVC, and CONY’s president, Donald Bennett Jr., resigned his at-large seat on the ARVC board. Conversely, several states welcomed state park directors to their membership, most notably California, Maine and Virginia. The latter took the intriguing step of adding Virginia State Park Director Joe Elton (former NASPD president) to its board of directors.
The David Gorin-led Best Parks in America (BPA) marketing network continued major expansion in 2011 and undertook a restructuring in the third quarter. Gorin brought in industry veteran Deb Kohls to serve as vice president. She joined BPA after 10 years as the senior vice president of Friend Communications and its successor company, Leisure Interactive. Joe Opp, recently retired senior vice president of membership services of Leading Hotels of the World, also joined the BPA team as a senior adviser for brand development. BPA also reorganized into a non-shareholder corporation meaning that it is evolving into an association format. Mike Gurevich, owner of Cherry Hill Park in College Park, Md., joined Gorin and Kohls on the BPA board. These changes will help BPA grow from its present 82 members to “a group of 150 over the coming years,” Gorin predicted.
Art Lieberman of MCPS for Campgrounds and colleagues produced a Virtual Outdoor Hospitality Expo II in November to mixed reviews. Better pre-show preparation by software supplier VCopious provided a smoother operation in most respects than the 2010 inaugural by another provider. Still, the show attracted less than 200 visitors during the two days that it ran live, and Lieberman opted to skip 2012 and concentrate on reviving the concept in 2013.
Chicago-based Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc. (ELS) expanded its already huge holdings with a $1.43 billion acquisition of 76 manufactured home and RV properties from Hometown America LLC during the second half of 2011. The acquisition added 31,167 sites on approximately 6,500 acres located in 16 states (primarily located in Florida and the Northeast) to the company’s holdings.
State governments seeking to balance budgets found easy targets in their state parks and campground systems. Nowhere were the cuts more evident than in California’s state park system, America’s largest. California’s once mighty state park system continued its downward spiral in 2011 amid budget cuts that left many only partially open and in decrepit condition amid plans to indefinitely close a quarter of its 278 parks. By summer, 60 state parks were partially closed, while 90 more had experienced severe reductions in services. The 70 closures slated for 2012 would be the first in the 84-year history of the system. The legislature decided in May to cut an additional $22 million from the state Department of Parks and Recreation to help close a state budget deficit of $9.6 billion. Overall, funding for California state parks has dropped 43% since Fiscal Year 2006, to $99 million planned for the Fiscal Year that began July 1 from $175 million six years earlier.
Looking for ways to increase state revenues, Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed in the spring to privatize some of the more than 50 state parks that do not offer overnight camping. The proposal set off a public outcry by those who saw the plan as a threat to the pristine nature of their favorite parks and the private sector, which saw the proposal as a way to undercut the private sector. Hundreds voiced their opposition in hearings held across the state. The plan was shelved by late summer.
When Minnesota’s legislature could not reach a new budget by July 1, it shut down the government, including the state’s 57 state parks. For 21 days, would-be campers had to look elsewhere for a place to camp. Nearby Wisconsin’s private parks announced they were “open for business” and cashed in on the shutdown. When camping returned to normal in Minnesota, parks scrambled to make up for the lost business.
Cavco Industries Inc. expanded its footprint in the manufactured housing and park model business in 2011 when it acquired Palm Harbor Homes Inc. Fleetwood Homes Inc., a subsidiary owned 50% by Cavco and 50% by Third Avenue Value Fund (TAVFX), completed the acquisition of substantially all of the assets and assumption of certain liabilities of Palm Harbor Homes on April 23 for $83.9 million.
Morgan RV Resorts attempted to introduce upscale park models to its resort in York, Maine, in 2011, much to the chagrin of the local zoning board, which deemed park models are manufactured housing, not RVs, and ordered them out. The Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based chain appealed the decision to a state court as the year ended. Morgan argued that nowhere else in the U.S. are park models considered manufactured housing.