John Denver, rolling over in his grave

You might think that a state’s Division of Natural Resources would be devoted to clean air, clean water and sustainable outdoor recreation. But what do you suppose such an agency will emphasize when it’s an offshoot of that state’s Department of Commerce? West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources won’t leave you guessing: it’s all about the money.

Last March, just an hour before adjourning for the year, West Virginia’s legislature enacted a law that for the first time opens virtually all state land to commercial development, empowering the director of the Natural Resources Division to enter into third-party contracts to build and operate recreational facilities in all state forests and all but one state park. Passage came despite objections that the law gives the director too much power, that it could reduce the affordability of state parks and that it could result in the development of casinos, racetracks and other outsized attractions at odds with the parks’ nature-based appeal.

Pish-posh, replied the bill’s supporters. State law has numerous provisions requiring the protection of “natural areas,” as anyone driving through the state’s coal-mining regions can attest.

By last December, it was clear that someone wasn’t wasting any time. Meeting with state legislators during their interim session, Acting Commerce Secretary James Bailey could confidently assert that plans for “a very large campground” were in the works. But precisely which park was being targeted Bailey wouldn’t say, even when asked directly by Delegate Ruth Rowan if it was Cacapon Resort State Park. Nor would he confirm or deny that such a campground would have to include at least 100 sites to be profitable, despite Rowan’s insistence that anything bigger than 50 or 60 sites would raise concerns about overcrowding.

Just days later, however, Rowan got her answer. Cacapon was indeed the targeted park. And even 100 sites seem unlikely.

For those unfamiliar with the area, Cacapon Resort State Park is approximately nine miles from Berkeley Springs and in easy proximity to the Washington-Baltimore megaplex. As a recreational facility it dates back to 1933, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built an 11-room log inn and a dam to create a small lake. These days, however, it has been recast as a “full-service, four-season resort,” a 6,600-acre expanse that includes a recently constructed 74-room lodge and conference center, an additional, recently renovated 46-room lodge, 31 vacation cabins and a 12-room inn, plus a slew of recreational amenities that include a full spa, championship golf course and a comprehensive set of mountain biking trails.

With all that, however, Cacapon has no facilities for campers to park their Winnebagos, Prevosts and Airstreams— creating a “unique business opportunity,” as the state helpfully pointed out in the request for proposals (RFP) it issued in mid-December. So unique, in fact, that the state has no idea what it actually wants. As the RFP makes clear, basically anything goes: where in the park such a campground should be located, how big it should be, what amenities it should provide—nothing is out of bounds, as long as it provides “the highest possible return on investment.”

Yet despite such a blank slate, only three proposals were submitted by the March 1 deadline—although a more diverse set of ideas is hard to imagine

On the modest end of the scale, and clearly most responsive to Delegate Rowan’s concerns about overcrowding, is a proposal from River & Trail Outfitters of Harpers Ferry to build just 50 RV sites, with gravel roads, plus a few additional amenities, such as an airsoft course. Yet of the three applicants River & Trails has the thinnest resume, apparently limited to operating a small city-owned campground in nearby Brunswick, despite the RFP’s requirement that applicants have designed, constructed and operated a minimum of five major campgrounds.

Then there’s Blue Water Development Corp., the very antithesis of River & Trail Outfitters. Growing by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, Blue Water owns and manages campgrounds, marinas and other outdoor recreational facilities up and down the East Coast and out to Texas, Colorado and other points west. The ambitious size of its growing portfolio is matched only by the size of its properties: these are not mom-and-pop operators. So it’s not surprising that its glossy submission calls for an “RV Resort” at either one of two different locations in Cacapon—one with 240 sites, the other with 350—each with an amenity “core” that would include a pool, water slides, cornhole, pickleball courts and golf car rentals. Not enough? There’s also a supplemental proposal for an “amenity area” that would include a lakeside beach, fishing piers, more water slides, a kayak dock and something called an “Aquabana.”

And, finally, there’s the “proposal” submitted by Scenic LLC, which opens with an apology before suggesting that West Virginia forget the whole idea of a campground in Cacapon. It turns out that for the past three years Scenic has been developing plans for its very own campground—a “market-leading, future-oriented RV campground”—on 400 acres that are “technically adjacent” to Cacapon State Park. And while it had not yet chatted with the state park system about its plans, “high-level planning briefs” had been conducted with a state senator, other state officials and the cabinet secretary of tourism. The left hand, apparently, did not know what the right hand was doing.

Too polite—or politically savvy—to point out that West Virginia’s government was putting its muscle behind a competing private sector venture, Scenic LLC nevertheless suggested that the state refrain from building any campground at Cacapon and instead consider a revenue-sharing “collaborative relationship.” As it further noted, “We believe this approach will be faster, more predictable, much less disruptive, and have a greater likelihood of success than a ‘design/build’ project within the boundaries of the park.” Oh, and as it happens, the campground that Scenic LLC is planning will be a KOA franchise, which it views as a plus—indeed, the bulk of its RFP is devoted to replicating KOA materials.

How all this will shake out is still anyone’s guess, but it’s the possibility of a 350-site campground that has local residents and park supporters most riled up. More than 70 of them met at the park’s upper lake last Monday to protest Blue Water’s proposal, and have vowed to keep meeting each Monday until an April 18 public hearing on the proposal. Given the state’s expressed desire to have Cacapon become “a major profit center,” however, Blue Water would seem to have the inside rail in this horse race: River and Trails Outfitters’ proposal is too small, even if it is more in keeping with a state park vibe. And Scenic LLC’s “collaborative relationship” translates into a 5% proposed revenue-sharing contribution, which on top of the additional 10% of revenues it will need to fork over to KOA, won’t leave it with a whole lot of wiggle room..

The West Virginia Department of Commerce, you can be sure, has much loftier ambitions than five cents on the dollar.

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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