RVing public has a PR problem

I’ve written in the past about the “gasoline gypsies” label that was hung on RVers, back in the 1930s, by a public wary of transients. That prejudice may have ebbed, as RVing became identified mostly as the idiosyncratic lifestyle of a bunch of old codgers spending their grandkids’ inheritances, but the recent explosion in RV sales across all age groups–and most notably to those same grandkids, now young adults–has been matched by a resurgence in fear and loathing of travelers and itinerants.

This deep prejudice is nowhere as evident as when a new RV park or campground is being proposed, or an established property is seeking permission for significant expansion. The usual concerns about any large development, be it commercial or residential, are predictable: traffic, noise, over-burdened municipal services, inappropriate use for the area, etc. But only campgrounds–unlike hotels or motels–seem to evoke a particular unease that goes beyond mere numbers.

When a new RV campground was recently proposed in Hinton, Mass., much of the public opposition focused on the transient nature of its prospective clientele. The town’s infrastructure is inadequate for “transient visitors who have no financial, moral or ethical ties to the community,” a local couple complained in a letter to planning officials. Another town resident, expressing her anxiety about an “invasion” of visitors, added: “The reality is, there’s no way to know who breezes into town and for what purpose. There is no accountability to the people who have worked hard to live here and live by the rules.”

The Hinton proposal was made by Northgate Resort Ventures, whose amenities and prices attract a higher-end demographic. Imagine, then, the paranoia that gets stirred up by a bare-bones proposal like the one in Larimer County, Colorado, where the owners of a 320-acre site want to put in 373 RV sites in the cheapest possible way, with gravel roads, porta-johns and no amenities beyond an “events building” several years hence. More than a thousand letters of protest have already been filed with county officials, at the earliest stage of a lengthy permitting process, and sprinkled throughout them is that same unremitting fear of the itinerant stranger.

“A temporary traveler will not have the same investment in the neighborhood as a long-term resident, which could result in an increase of crime,” one local couple wrote. They were echoed by many others: “A campground in an area of this size may also lead to an increase in crime and trespassing.” “The guests that will be coming and going from the over 370 camping sites have no ties to the community and no sense of pride.” “I am aware that sex offenders are often registered to the addresses of campgrounds, and that the transient nature of the occupants can provide a haven for other criminal elements.”

As fantastical as all that may sound, it also has more than a grain of truth–as underscored by local residents with RVing experience. “There is no doubt that this will attract at the very least transient individuals who are not vested in our rural neighborhood, and at the worst trespassing, drugs and stealing,” warned Tami Root, a former park ranger, who said that this kind of behavior had been “a consistent challenge” at the state park where she had worked.

Added local resident Kevin Blough: “As a family, we are avid campers who have camped almost every weekend for over 20 years during the summer months. During this time, we have experienced fellow campers who are conscientious and leave the area as it was when they arrived, however, more often than not this is not the case. Because the campsite and surrounding areas are not their personal property, campers often let their trash blow around, allow their animals to wander, use areas other than designated restrooms to relieve themselves, stay up all night, etc.”

Thus far, none of the major players in the RV sector–RV manufacturers, campground associations, RV media–have given any indication that they even see a problem, much less that they’re trying to deal with it. When they finally do catch on, they’ll be looking at a PR nightmare that will be so much worse for being so long ignored.

Return of the “gasoline gypsies?”

As the number of RVs rolling off assembly lines continues to soar, the investment class has astutely noted that there’s money to be made by throwing up more RV parks and campgrounds. At the same time, a growing number of established homeowners and businesses–and the politicians representing them–are awakening to this incursion on their turf, and they’re not happy. Moreover, public perception of RVers in general is being shaped by the growing number of otherwise homeless people squatting on city streets in aging, often barely operable travel trailers, motorhomes and vans.

Many of the concerns voiced when a developer wants to build a new or expanded campground arise whenever any sizeable development is proposed, from increased noise and traffic to greater demand on municipal services. But additional resistance arises when a project specifically targets a transient population, which often is regarded suspiciously by “the locals.” Because they’re just passing through, travelers can be seen as untrustworthy, inclined to take advantage and heedless of any negative impact they may have on the environment or on their more established neighbors.

RVers, in other words, are the contemporary American version of “gypsies,” the derogatory term applied by many Europeans to the nomadic Roma people. This is not a new concept. A century ago, when the price of travel trailers first became low enough to be afforded by the middle–and lower–classes, the New Republic referred to this emerging subculture as “gasoline gypsies.” And while the gasoline gypsies initially were regarded with a somewhat bemused interest, the onset of the Great Depression and its dispossession of many people from “regular” housing soon changed that.

By 1938, the American Automobile Association estimated there were 300,000 travel trailers in the U.S., and that 10% of them were being used for full-time housing. All those RV full-timers alarmed the more established population then, as they do now. As Esther Sullivan, author of “Manufactured Insecurity,” has written, many towns and cities throughout the country passed exclusionary zoning and ordinances prohibiting the use of trailers as housing, banishing them from the city limits or to commercial trailer courts, or requiring occupied trailers to be moved every few days. Sound familiar?

It’s important to note that the “travel trailers” of the 1920s and 1930s were essentially the same size–up to 8 feet wide–as today’s models. The larger units that now populate commercial trailer courts, with single-wides ranging up to 14 feet wide, weren’t manufactured until after 1955, when changing state and federal regulations permitted the transition from “trailers” to “mobile homes.”

But while mobile homes are now recognized as just permanent housing, today’s RVs straddle two worlds, the recreational and the residential–the same split personality that was observed, and increasingly resented, a century ago. Today’s events are following a similar arc, with manufacturers and affluent buyers attempting to downplay the growing use of today’s RVs as replacement housing for the tens of thousands of Americans squeezed out of the conventional housing market. Some of the dispossessed, as mentioned, are ending up parked on the street. Others are being shoe-horned into smaller commercial RV parks by campground owners who recognize there’s less work, and steadier cash flow, in having their sites filled with permanent rather than transient campers.

That leaves anyone trying to build or expand an RV park in the unenviable position of recognizing market demand but facing ever stronger headwinds of public opposition. History is repeating–but at an unbelievable scale. Those 300,000 travel trailers that prompted such a public backlash in 1938? The U.S. will produce twice that many RVs this year alone, while the number of RVers living in their rigs full-time is estimated as upwards of 1 million, or several orders of magnitude more than shook things up all those many years ago.

%d bloggers like this: