New Hope, Tennessee, lies a half-hour drive west of Chattanooga. Move it two miles south and it would be in Alabama; 4 miles southeast and it would be in Georgia. Fewer than 900 people live here, and few people are familiar with its most notable attraction, a duplicate of a shrine that honors the apparitions of Our Lady in Banneaux, Belgium. New Hope is, in other words, an easily overlooked and secluded oasis—if not for its misfortune of being located on the banks of the Tennessee River.
But being located along one of the South’s most iconic rivers means it was only a matter of time before someone decided that what New Hope really needs is a whole lot of visitors. As reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, three investors and a real estate agent talked with the town’s mayor, Mark Myers, in early March or late February about building a 400+site RV park—a park so big, in other words, that its occupants would outnumber town residents. But Myers could not—or would not—identify the investors, except to state that two of them were from the west coast and that “they’re moving from west to east building campgrounds.”
The idea of having upwards of 1,200 RVers plunked down in their midst has not gone over well with the locals. Following a March 27 aldermen meeting at which Myers disclosed the discussions, which had been going on for “a month or so,” a petition has been circulating to oppose zoning changes that the project would require. Local residents have questioned the proposed campground’s impact on town services, including water, sewer and electricity. “How’s it going to help New Hope?” asked resident Mike Binkley. “Are we going to be spending money and not receiving no money? Are we going to have to put police officers on, the fire department, or whatever?”
In some respects such questions are premature, as the mystery investors apparently haven’t yet purchased the 110-acre farm they’ve been eyeing, much less explained their plans beyond mention of a swimming pool and store. Yet in many ways the New Hope venture is proceeding according to a depressingly familiar playbook: out-of-town investors move in quietly, glad-hand and play rope-a-dope with key decision makers, and try to ingratiate themselves before the natives get wind of what’s coming and get all agitated. And although Myers said he had asked “some” questions in his several discussions with the investors, he clearly has no future as a prosecutor—or a reporter. Although he asked, for example, whether the investors had other properties that town officials could look at, he was told the nearest was in Arizona.
No mention, in the Free Press article, that Myers knew the names of such other properties, or had looked at them online. Nor did the Free Press push Myers for the names of the investors or of the real estate agent with whom they were working, and with whom Myers also met.
If this proposal moves forward—the next town meeting to discuss the proposal is scheduled for April 24—it will have an enormous impact on New Hope, but will in every other respect be unremarkable. This is, alas, the “new normal” for the campground industry, which increasingly is dominated by private and institutional money whose overriding concern is return on investment. Bigger campgrounds result in proportionally bigger returns, which is why new ventures almost invariably start at 250 sites—or more. And a swimming pool and a store are only the beginning of what will be jammed into a new campground of 400 or more sites, the better to feed, amuse and cosset all those transient visitors.
If campground investors “moving from west to east” sounds like a description of an invasion of locusts, there may be a reason for that.
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