By Andy Zipser
Author, Renting Dirt
Although RV production numbers have been softening in recent months, down from their peaks in 2020, investor cheerleading for the industry remains undiminished. Earlier this week, for example, the study firm Research and Markets predicted that the global RV industry will expand at an average annual rate of 7 percent a year until 2025, and more than 11 percent of American households now own an RV. That all adds up to a siren call for big-money investors who never would have given the sector a second look a couple of years ago. To the extent that big money leads to big ambitions, however, it also means more conflict.
Take, for instance, the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. Although it has long permitted RVers to use one of its parking lots for several nights without charge, the casino’s accommodation nevertheless has RVers complaining about the noise and fumes from idling tour buses and RV generators. So now the casino wants to add a “resort-like” RV park to its fistful of casinos and 2,228 hotel rooms, including a pool complex with waterslides and splash pads, as well as tennis, bocce and volleyball courts.
What’s the problem with adding an RV park?
The problem? The tribe wants to build the 300-site RV park not on its own reservation, but on 63 adjacent acres that it owns in the town of Preston. That has alarmed local residents, who worry about the proposal’s impact on an adjacent fishing pond, about the possible loss of trees that screen the casino from view and about the town’s inability to provide adequate emergency services. Moreover, they point out, there already are two existing campgrounds with a combined 340 sites within a 10-minute drive. Should the project be approved nonetheless – it is to be reviewed next week by the Preston Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission – it is to be managed by Maryland-based Blue Water Development, an industry campground aggregator that already owns eight RV parks along the East Coast, including five KOAs.
A 1,010-site RV resort?!
An even more ambitious project, meanwhile, is teetering in Kentucky, where a couple of real estate developers were hoping to build what would have amounted to one of the ten largest RV resorts in the eastern U.S. Marketed as the Kentucky Bluegrass Experience Resort, or KBER, the 1,010-site project was planned for 242 acres of agricultural land astride the ox-bowed Elkhorn Creek, just outside the small town of Midway (as in midway between Frankfort and Lexington). Promotional literature stressed that the “luxury RV resort” would incorporate “our local tapestry and culture,” transforming the area “into a Tourist Destination designed to enhance and showcase” its beauty.
Discussions with local officials about the project began in June of 2020, who apparently were seduced by its economic implications. A year later, Midway Mayor Grayson Vandergrift was still a big booster and assured a local TV station that most people in the area supported the proposal. “What it does offer is the public, the people of Midway, the chance to have, for the first time ever, access to a pool,” he explained.
Neighbors didn’t like the “instant community” proposed
Apparently not being offered, however, was much of an effort at letting the 1,800 residents of Midway know the full dimensions of what was on tap – not just the “usual” campground amenities, like an aquatic park, sports courts and game room, but a business center, a fitness and yoga center, spa services, a farmer’s market, food services with seating for 400, a 525-person-capacity amphitheater, and an educational center with 100-person capacity. There would be equestrian trails and golf car rentals, mini-golf and mini-bowling, kayaking and a bourbon-tasting room. All that, and for only $120 to $160 a night.
It was all a bit much, and as the implications sank in of having an instant community spring up next door that could outnumber Midway’s population two-to-one on any particular day, local opposition began to mount. By the time KBER ‘s backers took note and started scaling back their proposal – essentially cutting it in half – the damage was done. On Oct. 7, less than two weeks before a crucial vote by the Midway City Council, the mayor, who just five months earlier had written to KBER’s developers that he was “very excited about this opportunity to grow Midway’s tourism and local economic potential,” was singing a very different song. He was, he told council members, “no longer having private meetings or off-the-record discussions” with the developers.
Developers should spend more time in and with the community
As reported by the State Journal, Mayor Vandergrift felt that the developers “perhaps should spend more time in this community, and I don’t think doing a couple weeks’ public relations tour is enough to get to know this community.” This past Monday the council apparently agreed, voting unanimously to deny KBER’s application for sewer service and thereby – at least for now – deep-sixing the $40 million project. With that much at stake, however, it came as no surprise that KBER announced it was reexamining its options and would be back, although it didn’t say when.
This wasn’t a unique proposal
KBER’s experience, while notable for the size of what was being proposed, is not unique. RV parks and campgrounds typically are situated in rural areas, if for no other reason than because they take up more real estate than other kinds of development, and that usually works at a modest scale. But when big money requires big development it risks becoming the tail that wags the dog, which is what the residents of Midway came to realize.
In the five months since he sold the Walnut Hills RV Park and Campground, Andy Zipser has written a book about his family’s experiences that went on sale, Oct. 11. Look for Renting Dirt at your favorite bookseller (including Amazon); or you can order a discounted paperback at his new website and blog, renting-dirt.com, where you can also keep up with his other writing on the campground world.