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Two camps on RV park plan

Geraldine Haldner

He just wants to be shown that expense and revenue assumptions for a 82-space campground on the eastern edge of town are realistic before town leaders release the rights to the six-acre parcel of land.

“I generally like the idea of an RV park, don’t get me wrong. I think the idea is great,” says Sullivan, who owns and operates the Minturn Inn, a small lodge along the Eagle River in this town of 1,000, adding that he isn’t bothered by the fact he may be the only outspoken critic of a plan.

“It’s the numbers that worry me,” he says.

While many believe an RV park could be Minturn’s much-needed new income to a meager budget fed by sales taxes, a third of its income. Sullivan says he is concerned about signing off on a project that will cost about twice as much as the town annually collects and spends.

“I don’t see a reason for this town taking a big risk like this for what looks like very little profit,” he says, adding that even if investors finance the park’s construction, the town’s six-acre former gravel pit hangs in the balance if the park doesn’t make the $500,000 it takes annually to run it and retire the debt on it.

Sullivan points to his own occupancy numbers, which annually average closer to 24 percent, to say the town’s assumption of a 35 percent occupancy for an entire year may be overly optimistic.

A financial analysis authored by Minturn Town Manager Alan Lanning, an RV enthusiast, states that in order to break even, 29 of the proposed park’s 62 RV spots, 15 cabins and five camp spaces must be occupied at any given night. Lanning’s analysis assumes only one spot will be occupied per night for the five winter months, but as many as 60 in mid-summer. Additionally, Sullivan worries that $240,000 won’t pay for a caretaker couple and all the things needed to run a park – from phone lines to lawn mowers.

“This town is already stretched thin when it comes to staff,” he says. “I have concerns that what little staff we have will suddenly be running this park instead of running this town.”

Other Minturn residents and business people aren’t quite as critical of the camp ground proposal, but there are hints of concerns.

Michael Boyd, a Minturn resident and property owner, thinks the park proposal should be put to a public vote because “it could affect all the individual tax payers in this town.”

Minturn resident, gallery owner and artist Randy Milhoan, who can be found volunteering at almost any town event, says he wants to believe the park will be a benefit. Still, doubt lingers.

“If it can be shown that it can pay for itself – or even if it can just break even – I think it would be a great addition,” he says. “If we do a good enough job with it, it may be providing a service that otherwise doesn’t exist in this area.”

Even if a Minturn campground wouldn’t have competition closer than Breckenridge and Gypsum, Milhoan says, the numbers have to add up.

“My main concern is that it works economically,” he says. “I’m not absolutely sure of that yet.”

Mike Gast, director of communications for Kampground of America, or KOA, says a 35 percent occupancy rate isn’t just reasonable, for industry standards, he says, it’s low.

“Actually our camp system’s average rate is 40 percent,” he says of KOA’s franchise organization of nearly 500 campgrounds nationwide.

Moreover, Gast says, more and more RV enthusiasts spend the extra money to “winterize” their $100,000 vehicles so they can make first tracks on the roads and keep occupants cozy no matter what the conditions are outside.

Additionally, Minturn’s proximity to two prestigious ski resorts will make a park a welcome amenity for RV enthusiasts who also happen to be ski fanatics.

“There is a definite segment of our audience that is looking for that,” he says, adding that RV parks near and in Salt Lake City did brisk business throughout the Olympic Winter Games and that market trends show younger RV enthusiasts picking “attraction destinations” close to home for regular weekend outings.

“We’ve got parks along the East Coast that are pretty close to ski resorts and are being used by skiers in the wintertime,” he says, adding that heated cabins – Minturn plans to have 15 – are hot sellers regardless of season.

So far, franchise talks with Minturn, Gast says, have been encouraging. A rigorous qualification process is under way, he says.

“It’s not just a matter of making a buck. We are pretty fussy about who we welcome into the KAO family,” Gast says, adding that in return for 10 percent of the campground’s gross income, KAO will promote the park to its 500,000 subscribers.

The RV business, Gast says, isn’t just nearly winter-proof, it’s also turning out to be recession-proof. In fact, KOA’s reservations have grown 8 percent in 2002 over the previous year, according to Gast.

The effects of Sept. 11, Gast says, have been disastrous on leisure travel in general, but not on camping and road travel, where service providers have actually benefitted from people’s fears of further terrorist attacks.

“What we have found is that people want to spend more quality time with their families. There is an aversion to flying that still lingers. Many are breaking out the RV like mad and heading for the hills,” he says, adding that the newest survey shows one in 10 U.S. households has an RV.

RV manufactures are reporting that demand for RV “rigs” that start at $100,000 has increased by nearly 20 percent this year.

“This year their industry is booming,” Gast says. “It is definitely the bright spot in the tourism industry.”

According to national statistics, the average campground visitor spends $70 per day per head – money Minturn would like to make.

Minturn Councilman Fred Haslee says town leaders will withhold final judgement until they have heard from KAO representatives. But if the deal looks good, he says he has high hopes for the park and its purpose in Minturn.

“We want this thing to flourish,” he says. “Once it is established, it could be an absolute success for our town and lighten the tax load on the property owners and add to the businesses’ success. If it works it would help us eliminate our debt load and maybe – years down the road – build a recreation center and parks.”

The Minturn Town Council will hold a work session on the RV proposal Wednesday starting at 4 p.m. Walter and Carol Preble from KAO will make a presentation and answer questions.

If the council decides to go for the project, Lanning says, shovels could hit the ground by April and the park could open as early as October.

Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com.


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