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Part 2: Small Parks Carve Out Successful Niches

November 2, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Despite some crummy weather, unpredictable fuel prices, an historic state park shutdown and the overall uncertainty of the economy, many public and private campgrounds and RV parks in the western Great Lakes states survived the 2011 season in relatively decent shape. That’s one observer’s take on the camping season that more or less concluded last month across the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northern Michigan. Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM) Editor Steve Bibler and his wife spent two weeks on a working vacation, visiting campgrounds in the three states and a portion of Ontario and filed their report. The conclusion follows.

Penny Callahan holds a certificate from Woodall's Campground Directory.

The Whispering Valley Campground & RV Park in Rapid River, Mich., in the state’s Upper Peninsula, is a cozy, little 26-site park located on Highway 2 between St. Ignace and Escanaba. There are no recreational facilities to speak of (other than a pathway that leads to the nearby Hiawatha National Forest), and owners Penny and Michael Callahan don’t cater to families with children. They bill their park as a facility for campers ages “55+.”

But Penny says 2011 was the second best year since she and her husband built the park from scratch 13 years ago.

She credits the seasonal business for their good season. Of 26 sites, seven are rented to seasonals – fishermen and natives from the area, who come back to visit friends and relatives.

The Callahans are looking to the future, hoping to upgrade the electrical service and expand their sites to better serve the big rigs that are seeking more room.

An avid WCM reader, she is chagrined that she and her husband spent a considerable amount of money for a designer to lay out their park, only to find his design soon antiquated and in desperate need of updating. They are methodically bringing their park up to the standards of today’s campers.

Penny is trying to make the most of the 26 sites, decorating each with flowers and other plant life and mixing in an occasional water feature. They’re upgrading electrical service and hope to expand beyond the 26 sites.

Office and store at Happy Land RV Park

Happy Land Misses U.S. Campers

Norbert and Theresa Altmann, owners of Happy Land RV Park just west of Thunder Bay, Ontario, are in their 23rd year of running the park Norbert’s parents established in 1967. Happy Land, a Good Sam Park, is strategically located along Highway 11 near picturesque Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park and Fort William, one of Canada’s top 10 tourist attractions.

It’s like a jumping off point for campers, as it is one of the few private campgrounds between Thunder Bay and Fort Francis, located 210 miles to the west.

The Altmanns have a short camping season – from May 1 to mid-October – so every day is important for the 100-site park. Business was better this year than last, says Theresa, noting the improving Canadian economy. But she is disappointed that Americans seem to have forsaken her part of the province: The U.S. traffic has dropped way off and she’s not sure if it will ever come back.

She blames passport requirements at the border for much of the drop-off.

Other Parks

Several hours west of Happy Land is the town of Atikokan and tucked away off the beaten path is the Bunnell Park Campground, a 20-site, municipally owned facility.

There is no ambiance to this park, no on-site staff, just a caretaker who drops by to collect camping fees and maintain the park.

The description for this park in campground guides fails to mention that an 18-hole golf course adjoins the campground. And just a short walk from the camping area is a photogenic waterfall.

This park might not get the traffic it deserves, maybe because the well-promoted Dawson Trail Campground in the nearby Quetico Provincial Park offers so much more appeal. Nevertheless, the town could rev up its campground marketing effort, as some campers will stop here if they are aware of the natural beauty that awaits them.

Burlington Bay Campground. Photo from Two Harbors website.

Burlington Bay Campground, a 102-site municipally owned facility in Two Harbors, Minn., affords campers breathtaking sites overlooking Lake Superior. The over 40-year-old park is “a good money maker” for the town and a 34-site expansion is underway, notes Vern Schroeder, manager. A $1 million-plus state grant is helping to fund the expansion, which will be in three tiers, with each tier 13 feet higher than the one in front of it so all campers will have a view of the lake.

The campground was full every weekend of the summer and turned away an average of 30 campers a day at the height of the season, Schroeder noted. “The demand is there, the supply is not,” he said, thus the desire to expand the park.

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