Rural dilemma: big hope or big hype?

The other shoe has dropped in New Hope, Tennessee. As reported yesterday in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the mystery RV park that has prompted so much local angst over the past month is being planned by an Arizona-based company that is relatively new to RV campgrounds but has notably big plans.

Although the Free Press identifies the developer as Red Moon Development, Red Moon appears to be a general contractor whose primary business is construction of high-end luxury homes. However, it also has built at least two Red Moon RV parks that subsequently were renamed and are operated by Scottsdale-based “CRR: A Lifestyle Company,” founded in 2018 for “delivering lifestyle destinations through luxury RV Resorts and Manufactured Housing Neighborhoods,” according to its website. Those properties include the 413-site Verde Ranch RV Resort in Camp Verde, AZ, opened in 2019; and the 265-site River Sands RV Resort near Quartzite, AZ, which opened earlier this year.

Also in the works for CRR are the Coachella Lakes RV Resort, with more than 400 sites on 80 acres near Palm Springs, CA; and the Savannah Lakes RV Resort, which will have more than 300 sites. Both are projected to open later this season. The size and scale of all four properties suggest that the 900 or so residents of New Hope—a wide spot on two-lane Route 156 that has one Dollar General, two beauty shops and a meat processing business—may be on the road to having their world turned upside down, for better and worse.

While stressing that all of its plans for New Hope are still in an extremely preliminary stage, Red Moon already has thrown out some facts and figures for how it envisions the 110-acre farm being developed: a $30 million RV resort with 250 RV sites initially, later to be expanded to more than 400, targeting RVers who would stay seven to 21 days. In keeping with CRR’s other properties, the New Hope site could expect “a set of amenities ranging from clubhouses, pools, laundry buildings, pickleball courts, spas and showers,” as well as a “pond element” and a check-in/general store, according to Red Moon architect Aaron Hillman. Although Hillman did not mention any development along the Tennessee River, that presumably also would be in the works.

These and other aspects of Red Moon’s proposal will be subjected to a vigorous discussion at a town meeting Monday, April 24, when the mayor will be given a petition opposing any zoning changes needed to accommodate the development. Town residents also are expected to raise questions about increased traffic on their rural roads and increased demand on their volunteer fire department and two-man police department. And while a real estate broker working on the deal claims utilities to the RV park would be provided by South Pittsburg, which is on the other side of the river, it hasn’t escaped the notice of New Hope residents that their town was incorporated in 1974 specifically to avoid being absorbed by its larger neighbor.

Still, the usual promises of unexpected prosperity are being dangled before New Hope’s residents, with proponents insisting the project will be good for the community, projecting that it could bring in $1 million a year in hospitality tax revenue. Whether that will be enough to offset the inevitable increase in community costs presumably also will be questioned Monday, as well as the trade-off involved in turning a relatively tranquil corner of Marion County into a resort playground.

While New Hope residents will be looking for answers about a mega-RV project Monday, those potentially affected by a similar project in West Virginia are going to have to wait a while. Several proposals submitted to the state’s Department of Natural Resources to develop an RV campground at Cacapon Resort State Park were scheduled for a public hearing this past Tuesday, April 18, but the hearing has been postponed indefinitely, following legal claims that scheduling of the hearing had not complied with public notice requirements.

A court order calling off the hearing was issued just hours before it was scheduled to start. At this writing, a new hearing date has not been set. At issue are three proposals to create an RVing option at the state park, ranging all the way up to a Blue Water plan for a 350-site campground plus numerous amenities.

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Mystery money behind 400-site park

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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Home sweet . . . shipping container?

It’s gotten to the point where the notion of a “campground” is becoming indistinguishable from that of a subdivision. True, the housing units at so-called campgrounds and RV parks are—mostly— smaller than their suburban counterparts. And their settings may be more “rustic,” perhaps with gravel roads instead of asphalt, and with such camping flourishes as outdoor fire pits or communal swimming pools. But commercial camp sites, whether for RVs or dwellings, also tend to be more closely packed together than the houses in most subdivisions, and the inexplicable fondness of many campers for lighting up their sites means starry nights at a campground will be as elusive as in any Levittown.

What brings this to mind is a couple of news items April 7 in RV Business, an online industry magazine, that illustrate the ever-widening definition of what constitutes an acceptable campgound rental unit. The first announced the “successful splash test” of something called a Bungalow Boat, developed by a sister company of Blue Water, an aggressively expanding developer and manager of RV parks and marinas. The Bungalow Boat is little more than a cabin on pontoons, suitable only for being moored in calm water, but is being promoted as “a true glamping experience”—which is to say, as an overpriced shelter that will make money only as long as “campers” are convinced they’re paying for an unusually authentic experience.

The other RV Business article that caught my attention breathlessly introduced something called the Gateway Park Model RV, manufactured by ekō Solutions LLC, “specializing in state-of-the-art eco-friendly dwellings.” Its faux Scandinavian name notwithstanding, ekō is headquartered just outside of Indianapolis; its eco-friendly dwellings are repurposed shipping containers.

There’s nothing wrong—indeed, it’s quite possibly praiseworthy—to take a 20-foot-long shipping container that has outlived its initial function and rework it into a habitable space. But it may be a stretch to label the result as “perfect for the tiny home lover or on-the-go camper who wants the amenities of a home away from home,” which is a lot to lay on a metal box that at 160 square feet is smaller than most travel trailers and easily twice as heavy. “On-the-go” possibly, but not easily. Perhaps there’s a market for these on the West Coast, where cities are scrambling for low-cost housing to shelter a growing army of the homeless, but to call them “park model RVs” suggests that ekō Solutions has a more upscale market in mind.

Recycled “camping” at its finest: the Gateway Park Model RV. Ah, nature!

Meanwhile, the more conventional park model industry is rolling along quite nicely, even as traditional RV manufacturers have seen production plunge 50% from year-earlier levels. As Dick Grymonprez, director of park model sales at one of the country’s biggest park model manufacturers, Champion Home Builders, told Woodall’s Campground Magazine last month, business for the segment is up 15% this year, driven in part by the continued building and acquisition of campgrounds by industry heavyweights like Sun Communities, Cove and Equity Lifestyles. “All the big community owners are growing their RV portfolios and putting in RV parks, so they need rentals. And they’re buying park models for rentals,” he explained.

Park models are the Trojan horses of the campground industry (as I’ve written before, here and here), a way of smuggling small houses onto properties that ostensibly were built for the more transient pastime of camping—a blurring of the line between residential and recreational communities. Layer on the upselling phenomenon of glamping, from bungalow boats to tricked-out safari tents, domes, yurts, treehouses, prairie schooners, teepees, Hobbit houses and other fantastical dwellings, and all of a sudden the RV nomads of yore find themselves boxed out and hemmed in by the new urban settlers.

It won’t take much more of this before a lot of prospective RV buyers will suddenly realize they don’t have to make a 10- or 15-year investment to go “camping” when campgrounds are providing such alternatives. True, on a per-night basis a park model or glamping unit will cost significantly more than an RV site, but for anyone not looking to be an RVing full-timer, the overall cost favors traveling by car and staying at what amounts to a decentralized hotel room disguised as something else. In this way, campground owners may already be stealing business from RV manufacturers, who in any case have done themselves no favors with their years of shoddy workmanship.

So look for still more variations on the theme, more innovative ways to put walls and a roof around beds and bathrooms while marketing the result as an unprecedented wow! way to go “camping.” Eventually all the combinations and permutations will be exhausted and the public, wowed no longer, will move on, the campgrounds they leave behind looking like those mining towns that became overrun with tumbleweeds once the ore played out.

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How many red flags can you ignore?

Enter “Whispering Oaks Luxury RV Park” in a Goggle search field, and the first entry to pop up will be for the home page for just such an establishment, together with a notice that you can secure your slot at this premiere facility with just a $500 deposit—or “lock in the full year for the low price of $3100.”

Which right there should set off alarm bells. A full year of camping for just $3,100? At a “luxury RV” park?

Actually clicking on the link should set off a second round of alarms, with the home page boldly announcing that “Whispering Oaks RV Parks [dropping the pretensions to luxury but inexplicably becoming part of a chain ] will be opening on March 1st, 2023 on some of Mountain Home’s most majestic lakeside acreage”—that is, more than a month ago. That’s alarm-worthy because, while the site goes on to describe 30/50 amp full hook-up sites, 10’x12′ poured concrete patios, free wifi and numerous amenities “that are in development and are included as they are completed,” the truth is that essentially everything is in development. This luxury RV park, it turns out, has yet to get permits for water, septic or basic engineering.

That isn’t to say that work on building the 47-acre Mountain Home, Arkansas park hasn’t started. Apparently that began more than six months ago, lack of permits be damned, as developer Eddie Brian Sides of Reeds Springs, Missouri, freely admitted at a Baxter County Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing Feb. 27. Indeed, Sides had already been slapped with a notice of violation by the Arkansas Office of Water Quality back in November, which cited him for operating a large construction site without a required stormwater permit and for failing to use any erosion control methods while clearing the site.

But that isn’t all. Angered local residents claim Sides has been illegally cutting down trees on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property, installing septic tanks without permits, lying to county officials about the timing of the permits he did pull and threatening public access to Norfolk Lake, a major recreational waterbody. And, of course, there are the more pedestrian—but very real—concerns that have been tossed into the mix, such as storm water runoff issues and inevitable increases in traffic.

And then there’s this: Eddie Brian Sides, the brains behind this venture, apparently defrauded three Joplin, Missouri women out of a combined $29,000 a bit more than a decade ago, when—operating as Brian Sides Contracting—he accepted advance payments for construction materials to repair their homes after a tornado devastated the city. When he didn’t perform the work, the state’s attorney general sued him and a Jasper County Circuit Court Judge ordered him to repay the doubly-victimized women, as well as pay an additional $16,000 in various court costs and legal fees.

Thanks to the Mountain Home Observer, a modest but plucky on-line newspaper that dug up this information, we also know that Sides was embroiled in several other court cases involving contract non-performance, suggesting a disturbing pattern of behavior. But Sides insists there must be another Eddie Brian Sides running around the Ozarks, doing bad things and unfairly besmirching his name. “That is not me,” he told an Observer reporter when asked about the various fraud accusations. “There is another guy that done that.”

Here’s the kicker. Despite all these indications that Eddie Brian Sides plays fast and loose with facts and has little respect for land use or sanitary regulations, the Baxter commissioners nevertheless voted to approve his “plans” for the RV park—just so long as he gets those darn permits. In other words, the “planning” part of the commission’s authority— in a region that hews to the idea that people should be able to develop their property any damn way they wish—seems to be limited to checking compliance boxes and not actually evaluating development proposals or the people behind them. And while local residents have been pitching a fit over the proposed RV park, their chief concern seems to be that they not lose access to the lake.

Those same local residents and their representatives will end up living with the consequences of their short-sightedness, but RVers should take heed of all the red flags thrown on this play. An outdated and clearly misleading website is only the most outward sign of a sketchy operation, but it clearly signals what the oaks are whispering: “Mind your wallet.”

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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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March madness, campground-style

There’s a different sort of March madness that has nothing to do with basketball: it’s the annual flood of numbers and statistics for the previous year, compiled from various year-end reports and surveys. Some are revealing, some are of dubious value and some hint at truths that may unfold over the next year or so. Almost all get trotted out on behalf of one agenda or another, and all are enough to make anyone’s head spin.

One of the most questionable bits of accounting has to do with the size and economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry. A malleable business segment whose definition will vary from one person to another, it generally eschews any kind of government involvement—until there are tax dollars to be dispensed, at which time various PR engines kick into high gear to extol the importance of outdoor spending to the overall economy, to the health of the planet and to the wellbeing of all Americans. And so as the Outdoor Recreation Act lurches toward Congressional adoption, supporters have been underscoring its importance by claiming that outdoor recreation contributes a whopping $862 billion to the U.S. economy and therefore is not to be taken lightly. The RV Industry Association has chimed in by claiming that its piece of the action has been $140 billion, and of that, $35.7 billion is attributed to RV parks and campgrounds.

Yowza! $140 billion from RVing? Almost $36 billion from RV parks and campgrounds? Sounds impressive as hell—until you realize that the International Dairy Foods Association claims the dairy industry had an economic impact of $753 billion in 2021, or 3.5% of that year’s U.S. gross domestic product. Just for cow juice. Meanwhile, the bottled water industry says it expects its revenues to reach $95 billion this year, a bit more than the $91.4 billion in projected spending this year for beauty and personal care products, and even the justifiably maligned tobacco industry has U.S. sales of more than $100 billion a year. Those 11- and 12-digit numbers start adding up pretty fast, and as you slice and dice the economy into its various products and services, you soon realize that their combined “contributions” to the overall economy are larger than the whole. Since that’s mathematically impossible, could it be that each group of industry promoters has been just a wee bit fast and loose with definitions and numbers?

Realistic or not, though, industry representatives by their very nature will portray their businesses as economically important, growing and vital. In that regard it’s instructive to look at RVIA’s recently released survey profiling last year’s new RV buyers. A key finding: the new buyers are unquestionably younger than in past years, with 65% categorized as millennials and only 3% as boomers. With a median age of 32 and a median household income of $80,900, last year’s buyers were buying RVs priced at an average of $92,415—suggesting either that this is a generation with unexpected wealth or one that is willing, because of its youth, to take on some lengthy financing. The latter seems more likely, but either way, RVIA is intent on letting us know that this is a growth industry with a bright future and not just some fuddy-duddy backwater.

But there are other considerations. While the RVIA survey reports that almost a third of the new buyers expect to be camping at privately owned RV parks, a national survey released yesterday by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds suggests those parks may not be as roomy as needed. Although 48% of campground owners had projected they would add a total of 81,000 new RV sites nationwide in 2022, the actual number was closer to 17,000. Moreover, fewer RV parks anticipate adding new sites this year—only 28%, for a projected increase of 44,000 sites—so given recent history, it’s fair to assume that the actual inventory increase may well be less than 10,000. That won’t go far in relieving the increased demand.

Meanwhile, although ARVC’s study is reasonably helpful in its national overview, its sample size is too small to draw definitive conclusions about various parts of the country—which is a shame, because the numbers it does have hint at significant regional differences. Overall, the study suggests that the campground industry is considerably stronger in the 12-state southern region than in the 13 states west of the 100th meridian, including a larger percentage overall of corporate-owned and franchised operations—and therefore deeper pockets— in the south than elsewhere. It therefore may not be surprising that only 18% of western campgrounds added sites last year, compared to 31%-32% in the rest of the country; this coming year, 50% of southern campgrounds plan to add sites, compared to just 10% in the west.

As mentioned, the sample sizes for each region (66 campgrounds in the west, 71 in the south) are too small to be more than suggestive. But they are in line with another set of regional differences: while only 9% of southern campground owners expect to sell their RV parks this year, that percentage doubles for the western operations. That could mean one in five western RV parks will change hands in 2023, making an an already turbulent industry even more so. On the other hand, a lot of those campground owners may have missed their best window and may end up changing their plans. According to an interview in the April edition of Woodall’s Campground Magazine, RV park prices have fallen from 10% to 30% in the past year, due not only to market conditions but to year-over-year revenue declines.

“Generally, the high interest rates are raising cap rates marginally, which is decreasing the overall value of properties,” Jesse Pine, a broker at NAI Outdoor Hospitality Brokers, told the magazine. “Also, 2021 was a banner year for most owners and in 2022 parks were down 5%-10% in gross income commonly across the country, [which] coupled with higher expenses like rising utility, labor and construction costs, [means] the result was lower than expected net income.”

Up, down, sideways—you can probably cobble together whatever scenario you find most pleasing from all the numbers getting slung around. The only thing certain is that being in the campground business these days means one helluva wild ride.

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Reflect on this: glamping to die for

Now you see it, now you don’t, in this example of a so-called “invisible cabin.” Manufactured by ÖÖD House, an Estonian company, the site-ready 227-square-foot unit can be yours for $125,000.

In the relentless pursuit of the next hip thing—the next glitzy, must-have, “wow” experience to foist on the camping public—it was only a matter of time before someone took the concept of “smoke and mirrors” to its inevitable conclusion.

Cue the mirrors.

The high-gloss end of the travel and leisure press has been all atwitter about the upcoming debut of the Mirror Hotel, about 20 miles north of Asheville, NC, featuring 18 mirrored “cabins” on a 55-acre site. Unlike the more modestly-sized unit pictured above, these accommodations will include two-story 1,500-square-foot units perched on stilts, each equipped with its own hot tub, patio with fire pit and pizza oven. Mirror Hotel, owner Joanna Cahill told Travel + Leisure, “is built to be everything people love about glamping without everything they don’t.”

So this is glamorous camping: 15-foot tall windows to soak in the view at a Mirror Hotel “cabin.

Sheathing buildings in reflective glass, highly polished steel and one-way mirrors is just the latest example of high-end developers seeking to create wow factors and “memorable experiences,” and hang the expense. Or as related on the ÖÖD House website, when founders Jaak and Andreas Tiik “wanted to go on a weekend hike they didn’t want the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ hotel experience—that was too boring,” so they came up with the ÖÖD “Signature House.” In the seven years since that fateful walk, their glass boxes have spread across Europe, into Iceland and on to the U.S. and Mexico.

Initially adopted in limited numbers—no doubt because they require a significant investment—“invisible cabins” can be found a handful at a time in early-adopter glamping resorts in Ontario, Tennessee and South Carolina, where they’re pitched as exquisitely rare and cleverly non-intrusive. Stay at “a unique, bucket-list experience in an inspiring environment that is guaranteed to lift your spirit,” coos one come-on. Mirrored cabins “are designed to be virtually invisible in the surrounding landscape, allowing guests to feel as close to nature as possible,” extols another. In short, goes the sales pitch, here’s your chance to be a trendy voyeur of Mother Nature without having to step out of your comfort zone.

But despite such green-washing, environmentalists have been calling out the claims as deceptive and misleading. In recent weeks, when Shared Estates, a Massachusetts developer, announced plans to incorporate 19 mirror houses among 72 rental units at a “campground”— shamelessly named the Greylock Glen Ecovillage—it wants to develop outside of Adams, Mass., the Massachusetts Audubon Society weighed in to protest that the design endangers wildlife. “Mirrored glass presents a severe hazard to birds,” wrote Jeffrey Collins, a society representative, to the Adams Board of Selectmen. Although the developer had claimed that a UV coating on the glass would reduce bird strikes by 70%, Collins pointed out that several hundred million birds are killed in the U.S. each year by colliding with windows.

“Birds do not perceive reflective glass—standard or mirrored—as a fatal barrier,” Collins wrote. “The Mirror Houses are designed specifically to ‘disappear’ into the landscape by reflecting surrounding vegetation. While this is a creative design concept, it is one that will without doubt lead directly to bird deaths through window strikes.” Even a 30% mortality rate “feels like an unnecessary introduction of a known hazard into a site that’s designed around connecting people with experiencing nature,” he added.

Indeed—but that’s not really what the mirror houses are all about, anyway. While Shared Estates announced last week that it was scrapping the concept, it had claimed earlier that “the mirrored units are critical to the economics of the project” because of their over-the-top occupancy rates at other glampgrounds. Losing the mirror houses means a “significant hit” that may not be offset by turning to another “eco-structure,” Shared Estates added, and may force an overall reduction in the final site plan.

What it boils down to, in other words, is another ratcheting up of the untenable tension between “glamorous” and “camping” driven, as always, by a thirst for higher financial returns. Mirrored cabins, while undeniably sleek in an airport-lounge sort of way, are a good way to “get close to nature” only if you think that includes watching birds fly directly at the glass separating you and them.

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RVers adopt a wait-and-see attitude

It is a given that industry representatives will insist the sun is shining even as thunderheads pile up on the horizon—and really, who can blame them? But for everyone else, being lulled by rosy forecasts that ignore storm clouds can result in a good soaking. Or worse.

Having declared a month ago that the 2023 camping season was off to a strong start, which is demonstrably true, KOA went out on a limb by assuring the public that campers “are also starting to make solid plans for the rest of the year.” But “solid” requires some context. As previously reported, a year-over-year comparison of KOA’s surveys actually showed a remarkable softening: fewer than half as many campers had made reservations by February for this season as had in 2022 for that year.

The hesitation continues. KOA today released its March monthly report, flagged with the optimistic headline “Rise in camping continues” and citing strong camping turnout at the start of the year. But again it went a step too far, with senior vice president Whitney Scott announcing in a press release that “we’re seeing more bookings made earlier”—yet KOA’s own figures show that 27% of their survey respondents have booked some or all of their 2023 camping trip thus far this year, compared to 50% at this time last year.

There is, undeniably, strong interest in the idea of camping. KOA’s surveys show that, and certainly this year’s near-record turnout at the big RV shows underscores the point. People are looking and day-dreaming, pressing their noses against the display windows of their imaginations as they conjure visions of sweeping vistas and crackling wood fires—they’re just not committing. They’re keeping their powder dry, whether it’s by deferring RV purchases—dealers have been complaining that RV show interest is not translating into sales—or by merely bookmarking campgrounds and RV parks on their computers for a later decision.

The downturn in RV sales, despite industry efforts to characterize it as a return to pre-pandemic norms, is notably larger than expected. Market-leading Thor Industries—whose flagship labels include Jayco and Airstream—earlier this month posted steeper than predicted declines in sales and profits for its second quarter, contending that the sharp slowdown “is proof that our consumer is being impacted by elevated prices, higher interest rates and inflation.” Meanwhile, Winnebago Industries today reported second-quarter results that actually cheered Wall Street because the hole it’s in is not as deep as they’d expected: sales declined from $1.2 billion a year ago to just $866.7 million, or almost $60 million more than the consensus forecast. But helping plug the hole was Winnebago’s 16.1% increase in boat sales, to $112.9 million—apparently a segment that is not taking on water.

A similar pull-back was reported last month by Camping World Holdings, which posted a double-digit decline in same-store new vehicle sales for its fourth quarter—and which cut nearly 1,000 jobs. That mirrors trends in Elkhart, Indiana, where the great majority of U.S. RVs are manufactured and where the unemployment rate in January jumped to just a hair under 5%, more than doubling over the past year.

All this is more suggestive than definitive, as KOA and other industry leaders will be quick to aver. Americans have bought a lot of RVs in the past couple of years, and they’re going to want to use them. An RVing trip is still one of the cheapest ways for a family to go on vacation. Working away from an office is still a thing, and especially among a younger generation of technologically savvy nomads who have been the single biggest demographic of new RV buyers.

All true. But so are the statistics that show millennials are piling on debt to unsustainable levels, while Americans overall increased their credit card debt in 2022 by a record $180.3 billion—and today’s Fed decision, pushing interest rates to a range of 4.75% to 5%, means additional billions in costs in the months ahead. Moreover, millennials and others with college debt can expect an end to the government moratorium on their payments in a few months, further undercutting their ability to afford even relatively cheap vacations—and those, too, are becoming more illusory. RV parks have done themselves no favors by relentlessly increasing their prices the past couple of years.

Recent events have demonstrated just how quickly an apparently stable financial system can get shaken up. Alert RVers are paying attention to the gathering storm clouds, and park owners would be smart to do likewise, regardless of how many rosy forecasts they hear .

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The park-model scam gains steam

Spring arrives next week—and as surely as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano (this year’s festival will be March 25!), land developers armed with exquisitely rendered site plans and pulse-pounding economic projections will be descending on planning commissions and zoning boards coast-to-coast. Environmental disruption will be minimal, they’ll promise. Construction will be to the highest standards. Local shopkeepers will see an influx of new customers, tax coffers will be filled, and the people lucky enough to already be in the neighborhood will fatten and prosper.

And some of that may actually happen. Just don’t count on it, and especially not when the dream-spinners use sleight-of-hand to promote one thing while intending something else.

In southern Colorado, the dreams are being spun by Scottsdale, Az.-based Scott Roberts, owner of 11 RV resorts in five states. More recently he’s jumped on the glamping bandwagon, under the “Village Camp” label, which he describes as “an upscale outdoor resort company that combines oversized RV sites with luxury adventure cabins that can be rented or purchased as private getaway cabins.” Two such Village Camps have already opened, near Lake Tahoe in California and in Flagstaff, Arizona, and two more are in the works in Utah. Standard amenities include a steam room, fitness room, outdoor spa, swimming pool, amphitheater, playground, dog parks, outdoor fire pits, bistro with local microbrews, and a general store.

Now Roberts has his sights set on Colorado’s Animas Valley, where he’s purchased an option on a former 36-acre gravel pit that he would like to transform into a fifth, 306-site Village Camp. As with the other four properties, initial plans call for a mix of RV sites and “adventure cabins,” but the long-term goal is to convert a growing number of the RV pads to rental cabins, and eventually to sell as many of the cabins—currently offered at the Lake Tahoe property for just under $450,000—as possible. Which means, in essence, that Roberts is angling to create a series of high-dollar park-model communities without going through all the usual bureaucratic fuss that comes with building actual subdivisions.

But, of course, all that lies in a problematic future. What’s in the present is a proposal first floated at a La Plata County planning department meeting in early December, at which Roberts told area residents that only 49 cabins would be installed initially, but with plans eventually to have more cabins than RV sites. But these aren’t just “cabins,” he explained. They’re essentially tiny homes that meet the definition of an RV—thereby satisfying the less stringent zoning requirements for campgrounds—but are, he averred, the most expensive models ever produced by the factories from which Village Camps has been buying.

“This modular construction would be similar to having your own luxury hotel room,” helpfully added a planner working with Roberts, as reported in the Durango Herald. “The construction would look like some of our more high-end mountain homes here in Durango; it just happens to be smaller.” And just to drive the point home, Roberts chimed in with the claim that his resorts attract a more affluent class than one would expect to find at an RV park, mentioning several times the prevalence of six-figure Sprinter vans and Teslas on his properties.

That initial December meeting, in which the Herald reported that Roberts was greeted with a mixture of wariness and enthusiasm, was followed by a more divided planning commission hearing Jan. 12. A barrage of public comments, lasting well over an hour, included only a handful of Roberts supporters, with the rest objecting to the lack of more details, to the undefined increase in local highway traffic and to the impact of the park on the rural feel of the neighborhood. The planning board nevertheless voted, 3-2, to approve the next stage of the permitting process, clearing the way for Roberts to submit a preliminary plan that would respond to many of the concerns raised. Such a plan and permit application, Roberts said, will be forthcoming later this spring.

But in the interim, local opposition has gathered steam. The newly formed Animas Valley Action Coalition announced its existence this week and is seeking more support, contending that the planning commission is ignoring the county’s land-use plan. As argued by Dorothy Wehrly, one of the coalition’s founders, in a letter to the Herald editor, Roberts’ application should be for a “tiny home community” or a “manufactured home park,” both of which have more extensive permitting procedures, rather than for an “RV park.” Moreover, she added, Roberts is trying to have his cake and eat it, too, by proposing a 120- or 180-day occupancy limit for his cabins, whereas maximum length-of-stay under the county’s RV park rules is 60 days.

Whether the Animas coalition will generate the kind of local opposition that has greeted other recent glamping proposals is questionable: the environmental issues are not as stark in this instance as they have been elsewhere (how much more damage than a gravel pit can an RV park do?) and local opinion still seems more divided. As always, the devil will be in the details. But if nothing else, the Animas Valley case underscores yet again the Trojan-horse nature of park models, by which long-term housing can be introduced into a community in the guise of recreational vehicles. Need to meet the looser requirements of a commercial campground? No problem: park models are RVs. Want to sell “small luxury homes” for hundreds of thousands of dollars? No problem: park models can be decked out to look precisely so, and without having to conform to pesky HUD construction rules.

Finally, the sharp-eyed reader will have noticed that—as with most manufactured home parks—the “adventure cabins” that Roberts will be selling don’t come with the land on which they’re sitting. In addition, for the privilege of owning a tricked-out RV they’ll be paying $695 a month in rent, disguised as a “community fee.” And if the new owners want to recoup some of their investment by renting out “their” cabins when they’re not using them, that’s okay—provided the rentals are through the Village Camp management company, “to assure consistent guest experience.” For its troubles, the management company will claim half of the rental proceeds.

Financially incomprehensible as all that is, as evident when the glitz is stripped away, there undoubtedly are people with too much money and not enough horse sense who will snap up Roberts’ sugar plums. The question is whether Animas Valley will enable him to open up yet another confectionary shop—and what price it may pay for doing so.

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Glamp-zombie invades Joshua Tree

Lured ever onward by the siren song of rich returns, the bastard zombie known as “glamping” has reeled from one disastrous proposal to another, often without regard for the land it is trampling or the long-established locals it is shouldering aside. If there is a silver lining to this cloud, it’s the outsized contribution such misplaced proposals have made in bringing communities together, even if it is with pitchforks and torches.

The latest case in point was on display earlier this week in San Bernardino County, which while coping with historic snowfalls and flooding also is contending with a Beverly Hills developer’s proposal for a 75-site glampground in the high desert north of Yucca Valley. Flamingo 640, as the project is known, was first proposed two years ago for an area zoned for “rural living,” which permits single family homes and agriculture—as well as campgrounds and mobile home parks. The RoBott Land Company, no slouch, contends that Flamingo 640 is indeed a campground, regardless of what it looks like to the untutored eye, and that’s how its promoters persisted in describing it throughout a three-hour planning commission hearing Thursday.

But as other glamping proposals have demonstrated, the only tenuous connection such facilities have to “camping” is their use of tents for guest quarters—and that doesn’t mean the kinds of tents people associate with REI or Boy Scout hikes. Flamingo 640’s proposal includes 35 domed tents that are 16 feet in diameter, as well as twenty 850-square-foot “chalets” and twenty “camping lofts,” each encompassing 1,230 square-feet—the size of a small house. But that’s only the beginning: also in the plans are a camp store and reception area, eight restrooms, a 3,000 square-foot swimming pool and patio, two 3,600-square-foot “workshops,” a 5,500-square-foot “art barn,” a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and a 5,500-square-foot “agave bar.”

Then there’s a 2,400-square-foot yoga deck, four fire-pits with surrounding hardscape at 700 square-feet apiece, more than 25,00o square-feet of storage space and, yes, a 7,854-square-foot helipad—because isn’t that a standard campground feature? Combine all that with vaguely defined “gardens” covering 212,000 square-feet, 100 parking spaces and assorted paths and walkways, and you end up, as one local resident at the public hearing observed, with the equivalent of eight football fields’ worth of disturbed desert landscape. Or as another local declaimed, “It’s a bunch of luxury hotel rooms, permanent structures and activities all spread out across the desert.”

Nancy Ferguson of Jericho Systems, which has been designing the project for RoBott, responded weakly by insisting that Flamingo 640 is “a campground that also has resort amenities.” Yet even planning chairman Jonathan Weldy commented that “this sort of feels [like it has] a commercial size” quite out of character with the surrounding area.

Things could be worse: the original proposal also included a 25,000-seat amphitheater and 90-acre music festival area, along with 400 parking spaces. That’s been excised, in a failed effort to mollify local opponents, who instead see such ideas as proof of an outsider’s ignorance of the area’s fragility. Just a 20-minute drive from Joshua Tree National Park, the 640-acre site gets less than six inches of rain a year and is home to desert tortoises and burrowing owls, the former a threatened species, the latter “of special concern” and both vulnerable to soil-scraping development. The site also has hundreds of Joshua trees, which currently are candidates for listing as a threatened species but which the development application blithely claims can be transplanted when they’re in the way.

With the Flamingo 640 proposal percolating for almost two years, local opposition has had ample time to marshal an attack. Spearheading the resistance has been the Homestead Valley Community Council, joined by the Mojave Desert Land Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental and conservation groups, and which among other things has gathered more than 6,000 signatures on an opposition petition. Council president Justin Merino concluded his remarks by handing the commission “some light reading, if any of you are looking for a good read”—a thick binder crammed with 1,069 pages of pleas to deep-six the whole idea.

As might be expected, objections to Flamingo 640 run the gamut, from fears that traffic on “very dangerous” State Route 247 will become even more hazardous, to anger over further disruption of a rural environment, to resentment over outside financial interests profiting from the despoliation of land for which they have no affinity. But underneath it all bubbles a rage at the continued misrepresentation of such projects as “camping,” with all the back-to-nature overtones that implies. “To call this a ‘campground’ is a gross lie,” complained local resident Cordelia Reynolds. “Glamping is not camping,” and neither is a “destination resort,” which is also how Flamingo 640 has been described by its promoters.

in the end, the planning commission hearing dribbled to an anticlimax: despite repeated requests from chairman Weldy for a resolution from his fellow commissioners, none was forthcoming. In the pained silence that followed, he finally said that absent any motion, the Flamingo 640 application was denied without prejudice. That leaves RoBott Land Company just 10 days to appeal the planning commission’s inaction to the county board of supervisors—but because the application wasn’t actually denied, it also has the option of resubmitting the entire package at some future date.

Given the tenacious refusal of glamping zombies to die, Yucca Valley residents might wish to keep their torches and pitchforks close at hand.

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