Growing identity crisis for RV parks

Despite the entrance sign at right, the R.V. Park of San Rafael is home to an eclectic mix of travel trailers, mobile homes and a park model, all visible from the entrance.

RVtravel has an interesting story today, by Randall Brink, which misses the forest for the trees but which nonetheless sounds yet another warning about a dystopian outlook for RV full-timers.

The piece, headlined “RV park tenants evicted after court ruling,” relates how residents of the R.V. Park of San Rafael, California, will lose their homes after the park’s owners ran afoul of the city’s rent stabilization ordinance—an ordinance expressly designed for mobilehome parks. In a nutshell, the property owner’s management firm, Harmony Communities, tried to raise rents by more than the ordinance permits, and on being sued by the city, argued that an RV park should not be subject to a mobilehome ordinance. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, pointing out that the ordinance has been on the books since 1991—15 years prior to the current owner buying the property—and that the matter had already been adjudicated in state court.

Harmony’s response? Issue eviction notices earlier this month to 40 of the RV park’s 45 residents, giving them until Oct. 31 to vacate the premises, presumably to prepare the land for sale. “The city wants a private property owner to singlehandedly subsidize affordable housing in San Rafael but the park has no cash and is losing money every month,” Harmony explained in a press release. “Since the city has refused to honor its own ordinance, the only choice is to shut down the park. We anticipate all residents moving out by October and look forward to redeveloping the property towards a higher and better use.”

Note that even after losing its court case, Harmony is still insisting that the city’s ordinance should not be applicable to an RV park—but is that an accurate description of the R.V. Park of San Rafael? As the photo above illustrates, the one shared aspect of the various dwellings on this property is that they all have wheels. Calling this conglomeration an RV park is no more accurate than calling it a mobile home park or trailer court—indeed, it could as easily, and accurately, be called the Mobilehome Park of San Rafael. Moreover, that blurring of distinctions is not helped in the least by California’s statutes, which define a mobilehome park as a property “that has at least two mobilehomes, manufactured homes, recreational vehicles, and/or lots that are held out for rent or lease.” [Emphasis added.]

Why does it matter? For one thing, such state laws and court rulings continue to mock efforts by the RV industry to draw a bright line between its products, which it contends are not intended for full-time residency, and actual dwellings that must be built to national housing standards. Successfully making that distinction helps the industry avoid such pesky regulations as requiring their electricians to be licensed, to cite a particularly egregious example, and it enables enormous cost-savings on construction materials and quality. If national standards for manufactured housing—the more contemporary label for mobile homes—were applied uniformly to mobilehome parks, RVs would never be admitted.

But that’s the forest that gets obscured by individual trees like the R.V. Park of San Rafael, where press coverage tends to focus on the need for affordable housing and not so much on what standards that housing should meet. What’s obscured is that RVs, park models, tiny homes and house trailers increasingly have become an undifferentiated mass of last-resort shelter, jostling each other for a place to chock their wheels in a mad campground game of musical sites—single-wides moving into RV parks, travel trailers finding room in trailer courts, park models and tiny homes springing into any chinks that can be found.

All these disparate forms of housing are not created equal, so why do we pretend that they are—except, of course, when it suits an outfit like Harmony Communities (really? Harmony?) to draw a belated, self-serving distinction? Are standards for manufactured homes too stringent, and therefore should be relaxed, if only to make house trailers more affordable? Or are those standards the bare minimum for ensuring safe and durable shelter for people with wheeled homes, even if those homes are called park models, fifth-wheels or travel trailers—in which case, what will it take to extend those standards?

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Camping steak: a lot of sizzle, but . . .

The camping PR machine is kicking into high gear, beating the drums for another blockbuster year and working hard to energize the camping public. “Planning Early is a Hot Trend,” according to the Editor’s Notes in the March issue of Woodall’s Campground Magazine. “2023 Camping Starts Strong,” announces the February monthly report from Kampgrounds of America, its findings summarized by one online industry publication as “an exciting outlook for the outdoor hospitality industry.”

Well, not quite. While the Woodall’s piece asserts that early booking is “key for campers who want to stay at specific parks,” that may not be as true of the overall industry. And Woodall’s underlying analysis is based largely on The Dyrt 2023 Camping Report, which may be an interesting read but is almost entirely retrospective, more focused on telling readers what happened in 2022 than what to expect in 2023. Meanwhile, a closer look at the KOA report is revealing: while the February 2023 survey reports that 26% of campers have already booked all or some of their trips for the season, that’s less than half of the 54% who had done so a year earlier, according to that year’s February report.

Demand, in other words, may be quite a bit softer than industry boosters would have us believe. This has been signaled to some extent by a widely reported decline in RV production last year, with 493,268 units rolling off the assembly line—a 21.5% haircut from the all-time record of 600,240 RVs shipped in 2021; moreover, industry forecasts call for only 419,000 shipments in 2023. Optimists have rallied around the observation that even with last year’s steep decline, RV production in 2022 was the third highest in industry history; they’re less likely to note that the second highest level was set back in 2017, and that production declined each of the two subsequent years—until the pandemic turned everything around.

A second set of numbers RV manufacturers are less likely to quote have to do with retail sales. Indeed, the past decade has seen twice as many years in which more RVs were manufactured than were sold, an overall trend that was snapped in 2019 and 2020 before resuming in 2021. Last year there were 45,550 more RVs shipped than were sold, adding to a surplus of 29,469 in 2021, explaining why many RVers report seeing more RVs in dealers’ lots than in some campgrounds.

Replenishing inventory could be seen as a positive sign in an otherwise expanding market, but there’s little data to suggest that’s the case and a growing body of evidence to think otherwise. Americans’ financial reserves are evaporating as pandemic relief programs run out, ongoing inflation is eroding buying power and housing costs remain stubbornly at record highs. Perhaps most telling: credit card debt is at an all-time high, just shy of $1 trillion, and delinquencies among borrowers are accelerating, thanks to record-setting credit card interest rates nearing 20%.

Other storm clouds include an end to the pause on college student loan payments, scheduled for the end of June—just in time to derail the summer vacation plans of Gen Z and Millennial campers that the RV industry has hailed as a much-awaited shot in the arm. Gas prices, meanwhile, remain a wild card: $1 a gallon higher than a year ago but still at a reasonable level, yet with some indications that they might soon be headed for sharp increases.

Amid all that uncertainty, a campground industry that too readily believes its own rah-rah boosterism could be making some major missteps. One indicator of that is provided in the same Dyrt camping report that Woodall’s cited so uncritically, in a pair of statistics under the heading, “property managers respond to demand.” In 2022, 48.6% took advantage by raising their rates—and 46.4% said they plan to do so this year. Whether campers will swallow such increases at a time when consumers are spending more on food and essentials and less on hard goods remains to be seen, but grumblings about higher prices have already been forthcoming.

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What hunters and skiers can teach us

To better understand what’s happening within a relatively small industry, such as commercial campgrounds and RV parks, it can be helpful to look at “adjacent” businesses and associations. In that regard, recent complaints by hunters and skiers suggest the difficulties—driven by public policy changes and climate change— that await campers trying to enjoy an increasingly diminished great outdoors. Meanwhile, a 2022 survey of the “attractions industry” has found that travelers and tourists of all sorts are becoming measurably less satisfied because of understaffing and overpricing, a pair of developments that will resonate for growing numbers of campground customers.

In Colorado, three hunting groups resigned last week from the Colorado Outdoor Partnership, asserting that their concerns about wildlife management and habitat “have been increasingly underrepresented, not responded to and often ignored.” The Colorado Outfitters Association, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management were among more than 30 organizations that pulled together in 2016 to work on reconciling outdoor recreation and conservation in a sustainable way, but their resignation speaks to a growing imbalance in the group’s discussions.

“There’s no room for any conversations around wildlife and habitat management,” Dan Gates, a founding member of the partnership, told Jason Blevins, who writes for The Outsider newsletter. “Nothing can be done for wildlife and habitat because there are all these other distractions on this landscape.” Luke Wiedel, with the Elk Foundation, added that his group’s involvement was limited to “check[ing] off a bunch of boxes . . . so they can say we had wildlife groups approve our statewide recreational plan.”

“If we are really going to have meaningful and impactful conversations and action revolving around recreation and conservation, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves some serious philosophical questions about wildlife and habitat and capacity and impacts,” Wiedel explained. “We need to all come to the realization that we all have an impact—hunters and all recreational users—and then we need to decide what we are going to to do about that impact.”

Meanwhile, even as Colorado is celebrating one of the best ski seasons it’s ever had, this year’s abundant snowfall is an outlier after a decade “that has seen more sad seasons than epic ones,” according to Ski magazine. Indeed, the 2015-’16 season was dubbed the “non-winter” on the East Coast, and the season before that was considered the worst in Utah’s history, even as some resorts in Canada didn’t open at all. But while Colorado skiers this year are plowing through so much powder that some especially high-spirited ones are wearing snorkels, it’s been a very different story elsewhere, and especially in the Alps.

Warm weather wiped out nearly a month of racing at the start of this year’s season, and ski lodge operators who have been in business for decades are publicly fretting that their livelihoods are on the line. With preseason training on melting glaciers heading toward extinction—despite such desperate measures as resorts covering glaciers with fleece blankets during the summer—and invasive cacti colonizing some Swiss mountainsides, nearly 200 world-class athletes addressed a letter earlier this month to the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) demanding action over climate change.

“We are already experiencing the effects of climate change in our everyday lives and our profession,” the athletes wrote. “The public opinion about skiing is shifting towards unjustifiability. . . . We need progressive organizational action. We are aware of the current sustainability efforts of FIS and rate them as insufficient.” FIS has not yet responded.

As if it weren’t bad enough that outdoor recreation is under stress from poor planning, overuse and more extreme weather, a further contributing factor to user unhappiness is a decline in overall service from recreation providers. As reported by PGAV Destinations, which plans and designs various “destinations” (think theme parks, zoos, museums, aquariums, etc.), overall consumer satisfaction scores slipped in 2022 relative to historical averages in categories including staff friendliness, feeling welcome and value received for the money spent. Multiple studies, it added, “show customer expectations are soaring, but the customer service they receive is declining.”

What’s happening? The PGAV report cites a 2022 Hubspot survey that found customer service leaders don’t have the resources to deliver the customer service people expect—expectations, I’ll add, that get pumped up by higher prices. The missing “resource” is labor, which is in short supply throughout the hospitality and destination industries, and especially so at campgrounds and RV parks. “Staffing problems can cause lower quality, higher pressure on staff, closures of food and retail locations, longer lines and many other issues,” the report helpfully observed. “All of that adds up to upset customers.”

Put it all together and it’s clear the campground industry faces enormous, even existential challenges, but for the most part remains unable even to name the threats—never mind engage in the kind of fact-finding, discussion and debate that could lead to an active response. You know things are bad when the only way you can assess a situation is by analogy or proxy, inferring rather than directly observing. But that remove won’t make the reckoning any less painful.

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In a lockstep march to higher prices

Fair warning: this is a lengthy post, and would be much longer if I hadn’t already sketched out some of the context last October, in a post headlined “Can ‘dynamic pricing’ beget cartels?” It might help to read that before plowing ahead here, but in a nutshell, my basic premise was that the ongoing consolidation of online reservation systems is creating an opportunity—already widely common in the apartment rental business—for cartelization, with Campspot best positioned to take advantage.

Campspot has done nothing since then to dispel that possibility—indeed, just the opposite. And that suggests even higher prices lie ahead for RVers and campers.

Cartelization, briefly, means “an act by market participants to form an association to control or attempt to control generation, distribution, sale or prices” of a commodity or service—price fixing, in other words. It’s illegal in the United States, but that doesn’t mean established businesses don’t want it. They just don’t want to be caught at it. So a key understanding here is the realization that “market participants” may include not just primary players—campgrounds and RV parks—but also secondary parties who have some control over prices, with the consent of the primary players, but who don’t take direct payment.

Until recently, the possibility of price-fixing in the highly fragmented campground industry wasn’t a real concern. When I first got into this business, more than a decade ago, the FTC-fearing sages at the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) would get all atwitter if campground owners at an ARVC event would start discussing or comparing rates, but that was an absurd overreaction. With upwards of 12,000 campgrounds scattered across the width and breadth of the United States, all but a comparative handful owned by as many individuals, the thought that there could be any meaningful collusion on prices—or anything else—was laughable.

But times have changed. It’s not that the campground industry is now more consolidated—it is, but still not enough for individual campgrounds to coordinate pricing—but that its reservation systems have moved inexorably to online providers. Whereas campgrounds and RV parks until a few years ago each had their own reservation systems, some so primitive they consisted merely of large wall calendars or complicated index-card assemblies, now virtually all use one of a dozen to 15 computerized service providers that enable campers to make reservations online.

As they became entrenched within the industry, such reservation systems promoted several pricing innovations that eventually overwhelmed resistance from campground owners who didn’t want to antagonize their customers. Cancellation fees, site-lock fees and larger up-front deposits have all become standard, but even more pernicious has been the spread of dynamic pricing, which eliminated the old rate sheets in favor of algorithmically-driven rates that vary according to supply and demand. One result is that even campground owners don’t know what their campers are paying at any one time—but they do know that their bottom lines have gotten fatter, so they’re only too happy to play along.

It’s important to understand that none of this amounts to price-fixing in a traditional sense, and indeed, an argument can be made that it’s almost the opposite. Although a campground owner may set an upper and lower limit for how much his reservation system charges for a site, the actual outlay by any one camper is outside his field of vision, so to speak. Moreover, that campground owner has only a vague idea, at best, of what a competitor 20 miles away is charging for a comparable site, never mind the rate charged by a campground at the other end of the state.

But there is someone who does know all that, and more: the reservation system provider.

Client campgrounds of most reservation system providers number in at least the hundreds, which is a good start but still not enough to efficiently drive prices higher. Campspot is another story. With more than 1,800 private parks in North America comprising approximately 200,000 sites, it has enough aggregated data from numerous unrelated clients to follow in the footsteps of a Texas-based company named RealPage and its proprietary algorithm, YieldStar, which has significantly increased apartment rental rates across the country . As detailed in an exhaustively researched ProPublica article, YieldStar  “suggests” optimum rates for thousands of open rental units each day—rates that often are significantly higher than the market rate, and frequently higher than experienced property managers believe are obtainable. And guess what? Over time, such “suggestions” have been adopted ever more readily.

That’s not to say that Campspot is doing something similar, but to suggest that its growing dominance increasingly puts it in a position to do so. And given the inexorable logic of market dynamics in a consolidating industry (meaning both RV parks and campgrounds and online reservation systems), some such outcome seems highly likely.

In that regard, two recent developments suggest that Campspot’s drive toward overwhelming its putative competitors is gathering steam. The first is its announcement Feb. 14 of “Campspot Accelerator,” unabashedly described as a “new revenue-driving feature” for campgrounds. Basically an advertising platform grafted onto the reservation interface, Accelerator “placements” are “intentionally selective and thoughtfully designed to create the most value for the consumer while maximizing the potential for the campground.” Translation: campers reserving sites through Campspot will be enticed to spend extra money, with a portion of the proceeds going to the campground.

Thus far, Campspot is offering two such “accelerators.” One is a partnership with RVshare, which connects RV owners and campers looking to rent an RV—which, okay. But the truly innovative offering is Sensible Weather, which is selling an insurance-like product that “reimburses a camper’s reservation costs when rain impacts their experience.” Claiming that weather “is the most stressful part of planning a camping trip,” Accelerator now offers to make the insurance available for purchase when booking “to help increase camper confidence and enhance the overall experience.”

This adds a whole new dimension to what reservation systems offer, and until other providers catch up, promises to give Campspot even more of a competitive edge in building its client base—and why wouldn’t an RV park owner jump at the chance? But Campspot isn’t just broadening its sales appeal by adding new revenue generators to its menu. It’s also getting a promotional assist from . . . wait for it . . . ARVC, the same organization that once upon a time got panicky when members asked each other about their rates.

Two days after Campspot made its Accelerator announcement, ARVC sent out a membership email blast with the subject line, “Save Time With Campspot.” The actual message, featuring a prominent ARVC logo over a Campspot picture of a happy couple looking at a laptop screen, started with: “Campground owners and operators love the time-saving, stress-reducing features of Campspot. In fact, you might even catch Campspot owners doing a little happy dance in front of their computers from time to time.”


The email goes on to tout Campspot’s grid optimization, provides a link for requesting a demo, and quotes a happy customer. It doesn’t mention any other reservation system provider, even though most, like Campspot, are Supplier Council Members of ARVC—and most provide similar grid optimization features. And it never acknowledges that this email was a paid advertisement, which most assuredly it must have been, because why else would it have gone out?

The bottom line is that Campspot is moving quite aggressively toward monopolizing the campground reservation business, raising the specter of still higher rates for RVers down the road. This move is being greeted with the ready compliance of campground owners who see nothing but more profit for themselves. And it’s happening with the ironic cooperation of ARVC, which apparently has pivoted 180 degrees from its once-overblown anxieties about price fixing.

Who would have thought that a backwoods industry like this would end up on the cutting edge of money-extraction practices?

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Climate refugees add to camp crush

The growing prevalence of battered RVs and tents as housing of last resort, crowding city streets, public lands and commercial campgrounds, has been recognized for some time as the inevitable byproduct of soaring rents and gentrifying real estate. But it’s not just higher costs that are contributing to America’s housing immiseration. A growing horde of climate refugees—a phenomenon long associated with Third World countries—also is becoming an inescapable part of the landscape, driven by extreme weather events that are growing in both number and intensity.

Last week the American Red Cross, which has among the most comprehensive overviews of national crises, reported it had responded to more than 80 separate disasters over the previous 100 days—some, it averred, accelerated by the climate crisis. “In the 1980s, we had an average of three billion-dollar disasters each year, while over the past five years the country has seen a six-fold increase and now averages 18 of them annually,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations for the Red Cross. “We’re now running major disaster operations nearly continually throughout the year, as our climate changes and extreme weather increases.”

The Red Cross’s observations were buttressed by a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau that concludes an estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. were forced to evacuate their homes last year by extreme weather—some never to return. The estimate was extrapolated from 68,504 responses to a survey conducted Jan. 4-16 and is still considered “experimental,” as the bureau first started tracking displaced people only in 2020 and is still refining its methodology. Still, the scale of the problem it reveals has surprised and even shocked some observers.

“These numbers are what one would expect to find in a developing country. It’s appalling to see them in the United States,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told NBC News last week. “The United States is not in the least prepared for this. Our settlement patterns have not reflected the emerging risks of climate change to the habitability of some parts of the country.”

High on that list for 2022 are the Gulf Coast states, where hurricanes displaced almost a million people in Florida—7% of the population—and twice that percentage in Louisiana. More than 22,000 homes were destroyed or received major damage just from Hurricane Ian. Meanwhile, atmospheric rivers on the West Coast displaced more than 250,000 in California, while tornadoes and other severe weather displaced hundreds of thousands more—more than 380,000 just in Texas—across the South. Indeed, the National Weather Service already has confirmed 123 tornadoes in the U.S. in 2023.

Most public officials, however, have not risen to the occasion—or have made the homelessness problem even bigger. In battered Florida, for example, where rents last year increased an average 24% in the largest metro areas, state legislators repeatedly diverted money from a trust fund meant to support affordable housing programs for other purposes. Meanwhile, the Orange, Osceola and Seminole school districts reported a one-year increase of 45% in homeless students, and a tent city of dozens of people has sprung up next to downtown Orlando.

Final 2022 figures for the U.S. overall are still being tallied, but it’s sobering to realize that in 2021, more than 40% of all Americans lived in a county that was struck by extreme weather that year. That percentage will almost certainly grow, and as it does, the population of suddenly homeless people will grow in lock-step. Some—perhaps a majority, for now— will be able to rebuild, but those with inadequate or no insurance, or whose livelihoods have been demolished along with their homes, will not.

And as this dynamic evolves, many recreational campgrounds will more closely resemble refugee camps. It’s already happening, in slow motion. And it’s not something “over there,” in an earthquake-devastated Turkey or a flood-swamped Pakistan, but right here at home.

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Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

There is great jubilation in New York’s Catskills region this week, on the news that KOA is walking away from a proposed 75-site glamping resort that faced growing local opposition. (See past posts here and here.) News of the unexpected about-face came in a terse three-sentence letter, dated Feb. 8, announcing that the company “has formally withdrawn its special use permit, site plan and subdivision applications.”

Signed by Jenny McCullough, senior director of marketing and operations for Terramor Outdoor Resort, the letter was received by the Saugerties planning board two weeks ahead of a meeting at which KOA was expected to respond to numerous concerns raised by area residents. “After careful evaluation, it was determined that the project did not meet criteria across several benchmarks to warrant moving forward,” McCullough wrote, without further elaboration. In response to subsequent emailed queries, McCullough gave assurances that the company has “no intention to resubmit at a later date,” but also confirmed that KOA still owns the 77-acre site and is “discussing our options internally” on how to proceed.

Planning board chairman Howard Post, meanwhile, responded to local residents by saying the board has “no idea” what KOA will do next. “Nothing to stop them from resubmitting,” he wrote. “They might sell . . . they gave no indication nor do they have to.”

But as it turns out, KOA/Terramor has bigger fish to fry—or bigger headaches with which to contend. Because even as it was plunging into the Catskills morass, it simultaneously was looking to develop a far larger and more ambitious project in the foothills of the High Sierra, just outside Yosemite National Park. Much more ambitious. According to the preapplication proposal it filed in December of 2021 with the Mariposa County Planning Board, KOA wants to build two resorts on a 993-acre property that straddles State Highway 140, a major access route for the park. The broad strokes include:

  • A KOA Resort would be located on 90 acres south of the highway, to include 400 full hook-up RV sites and 25 to 50 tent sites with water connections. A 10,000-square-feet building would house a check-in desk, restaurant, store, laundry, a meeting space and employee office space. Also located on the grounds would be a swimming pool and bathhouse, two playgrounds and “select employee housing.”
  • A Terramor Outdoor Resort would be built on 80 acres on the north side of the highway and would include 80 to 90 “conditioned glamping units,” also described as “tents [that] will incorporate standard amenities of a luxury hotel room including a full bathroom, electrical supply and climate control.” An 8,000-square-foot lodge would include a restaurant, meeting space and indoor pool, while other amenities would include a 2,000-square-foot open-air pavilion and a 1,500-square-foot wellness/spa center. As with its neighboring resort, the Terramor property also would include “select employee housing.”
  • The two resorts would have a combined 100 employees and would expect to have 800 guests a day at the KOA resort and 200 a day at Terramor. The two facilities would have a total of 525 on-site parking spaces and would consume up to 51,000 gallons of water a day.

A preapplication is by definition conceptual and short on details, giving county planners an opportunity to list the specific information they will require in a formal proposal. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when KOA got around to its first public presentation, a “coffee and conversation” meeting in mid-June last summer, the discussion was still vague enough that it “left many members of the community uncertain and unhappy,” according to a report in the Mariposa Gazette. But not to worry: local residents were assured more details would be forthcoming in a meeting later that summer or early fall.

Nature had other ideas. Mere weeks after the kaffeeklatsch, the Oak Fire sprang up literally next door to the Terramor/KOA site and consumed more than 19,000 acres before being wrestled into submission in mid August. (The Oak Fire, it should be noted, occurred less than a mile west of where the even more substantial Ferguson Fire ravaged 97,000 acres in 2018.) Somehow, the fall public presentations never occurred; what did occur was a request from the Mariposa County fire department at a board of supervisors meeting for the county to bite the bullet and start supplementing the virtually all-volunteer fire fighting force with paid staff. Four of the county’s 13 fire stations are unstaffed because of declining volunteer levels, while the only paid fire fighters have been the chief and his deputy.

More recently, nature let loose with a second volley, this time with the torrential rains that battered California for much of January. The resulting floods and erosion were even more pronounced in areas with recent burn scars, such as those left by the Oak Fire, with roads washed away and local residents left stranded for days on end. As icing on the cake, it turns out that Mariposa is the only county in California that does not participate in FEMA’s federal flood insurance program.

KOA has made no public pronouncements about any of these developments, or how they may affect its plans. Nonetheless, it has yet to file a formal proposal with Mariposa County, casting further doubt on its announced plans to have three Terramor resorts up and running by 2025; the only existing Terramor is in Bar Harbor, Maine. Meanwhile, Mariposa residents opposed to KOA’s plans have turned to their Catskills counterparts for organizing pointers—and apparently may expect a shipment of no-longer-needed anti-Terramor lawn signs and posters that are being collected in Saugerties and Woodstock on their behalf.

There is one other ironic footnote to all this: as previously noted, KOA already had a campground in the Saugerties/Woodstock area that it could have repurposed as a Terramor with much less hassle, but which was sold to its glamping rival, Autocamp. KOA also had a franchised campground in Mariposa County, just a mile up the road from its proposed new development—but that too was sold, also to Autocamp. The 98-site Yosemite Airstream glampground had its ribbon-cutting in 2019.

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Good job numbers, but not for RVers

The jobs numbers out on Friday resulted in great giddiness in some quarters and foreboding in others. Giddiness because January’s 3.4% unemployment rate is the lowest the U.S. has seen since 1969, giving the lie to the nihilistic doomsayers who would have us believe we’re on the verge of economic collapse, the better to advance their agenda of more tax breaks for the rich. Foreboding because of the fear that low unemployment will push up wages, increasing inflationary pressures and possibly prompting more interest rate increases, finally pushing us into the recession that, yes, the nihilistic doomsayers keep predicting.

So which is it: Let the good times roll? Or hunker down for the coming storm?

For starters, it’s telling that the low unemployment numbers were coupled with news that the U.S. added 517,000 jobs in January, or almost three times most economists’ expectations. This increase was all the more startling because it was announced in the context of enormous—and enormously publicized—layoffs in the once high-flying tech sector, totaling more than 66,000 thus far in 2023. Yet that very contrast suggests why inflationary fears due to a strengthened labor market are overblown: the people getting laid-off are making multiples of what the new jobs are offering. As an economy, for the most part we’re trading high-paying jobs for low-paying ones.

Indeed, drill down into the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics establishment survey for January and you’ll find that employment gains were strongest at the butt end of the wage scale, in leisure and hospitality, up by 128,000 jobs. In other words, for every high tech worker making a six figure salary who lost his job, two jobs paying significantly less than the median wage opened up. And guess what? The month’s average hourly earnings for all employees on private, nonfarm payrolls rose a grand 10 cents an hour, or 0.3%. That means average hourly earnings for the past 12 months posted a total increase of 4.4%, which not only is not inflationary but isn’t even keeping pace with the rising cost of living.

But there’s more. Despite that 128,000 pop in leisure and hospitality jobs, employment in this sector still remains significantly below the pre-pandemic level three years ago this month, by 495,000 jobs, or 2.9%. Moreover, if you break down the leisure and hospitality category into its component pieces, the food services and drinking end of things—primarily restaurants and bars—claimed the lion’s share of the job gains, while accommodations gained a mere 15,000 or so.

Where do campgrounds and RV parks fit in all this? There’s no definitive way to answer that, because the sector is such a small piece of the overall pie that BLS can’t spit out meaningful numbers. But with “accommodations” being inclusive of hotels, motels, resorts and other transient lodging significantly larger than the campground industry, it’s fair to assume that very few of those employment gains are trickling down to your favorite RV park.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence—which, alas, is all we have—is that the labor shortage afflicting the campground industry for the past three years continues unabated. High-end properties that can afford decent wages may be fully staffed, and mom-and-pop campgrounds that can be operated by just one or two couples are getting along. But the vast middle between those two extremes is hurting for employees, and RVers this year will feel the consequences: more automated check-in procedures and less human contact, dirtier bathrooms and cabins, more unkempt grounds and fewer activities.

Of course, it doesn’t help that many of these campgrounds, snatched up by absentee investors trying to maximize returns, continue paying wages that haven’t kept pace with the pay scales at fast-food restaurants and big-box stores. (That’s the other part of the equation that often gets omitted when people fret that higher wages will cause more inflation: the alternative is to reduce profits—but what am I saying?) Campground jobs, because they involve so much interaction with the outdoors, are among the dirtiest and most physically demanding in the accommodations sector, but RV parks are still offering $14 an hour for housekeepers or $15 an hour for maintenance workers. Good luck with that.

Bottom line, the new job numbers are (mostly) good news for the economy, but mostly irrelevant for the campground sector. So no rational need for hunkering down (“rational,” because it’s folly to underestimate the role of irrational actors), but if you’re heading out to a campground this summer, best be prudent and pack adequate cleaning supplies and tick spray.

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