Western Great Lakes Parks Recap 2011 Season

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November 1, 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. Part 1 follows.

It rained every day during our camping trip the end of September across the western Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan and the southwestern tip of Ontario. But while dodging the raindrops during our 2,253 mile-trek, I discovered that the parks we visited showed great resiliency in coping with the multitude of challenges they faced this camping season.

The 2011 season in this region started out on a wet, cold note and then got better as the season moved on. Then, the Minnesota state park shutdown for 22 days in July sent many campers to private campgrounds or across the border into neighboring states, further upsetting the season.

Wisconsin Park Has Many Competitors

David and Joy Taber with Carly

Nowhere was a microcosm of the season more apparent to us than at Patricia Lake Campground near Minocqua, Wis., a heavily wooded, 100-site Good Sam Park located in the northern part of the state. Minocqua is the state’s No. 5-rated tourist draw and campground owners David and Joy Taber go toe to toe with some 25 competing campgrounds, including two national forests and a state forest, sporting several thousand campsites.

They started their 19th year in the business on May 1 and proceeded to register what Joy called “the worst month we ever had.” Cold, wet weather severely curtailed traffic at the outset.

Fierce storms took out their electricity twice during the season and a direct lightning strike in July damaged a storage shed and fried their credit card machine.

Still, the summer overall was satisfactory; traffic picked up and the season finished on a strong note.

“We are not complaining at all,” said Joy, while enumerating the negatives that could have stifled business even further.

David credited their hearty seasonal crowd with holding up their bottom line.

“Two-thirds of our park is seasonal. You got to have a lot of seasonals to make it in this environment,” he said.

Indeed, the Tabers’ campground – they’re the fourth set of owners since it was established more than 50 years ago – has an incredibly loyal following. Many of the seasonal campers are second- or third-generation campers, headed by one man who has been spending each summer there for the past 48 years (!). The list of seasonals reads like a family tree with many of them either related to each other or best of friends.

The Tabers also credit their knowledge of what campers want (they camp in a 35-foot Newmar Class A motorhome in the off season) with making their park attractive to their guests.

The Tabers’ campground is one of the few in the area with both full hookups and cable. They were one of the first in the area with Wi-Fi, though Dave predicts that with the proliferation of smart phones, Wi-Fi may become a non-issue for many campers.

They blacktopped about a third of the park’s roads this season, and they are looking to increase the power at sites to meet the demands of today’s big rigs. The Tabers added a dog park this season and sport a “dog beach” on Patricia Lake. You would be surprised by how many dogs enjoy the beach, Dave said, which translates into happy human customers.

Largest Jellystone Park Does Well

Downstate in Warrens, Wis., an area noted for its cranberry production, the Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Camp-Resort continued its imitation of the fabled Phoenix.

Greg and Shelly Finger

Snatched out of bankruptcy in 2006 by Texas businessman Bruce Bryant, owner of Legacy Resorts, the 642-site park (the largest in the 76-member Leisure Systems Inc. chain) recorded a 20% increase in reservations this past summer, said Greg Finger, co-manager with wife Shelly.

‘We’re getting the word out the park is back open,” Greg said.

This park offers 336 campsites, 33 rustic cabins, 10 full-service cabins, four villas, 66 park models and 193 owner sites. The cabins are booked solid from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

This is a true destination park with a multitude of water features and daily activities throughout the summer. The water feature area is opened to the public for a daily fee of $20.

It is not uncommon to have nearly 3,000 people in the campground on busy weekends, they note. Lines form early on the busy, hot days in order to get the tables with umbrellas. The park’s fleet of 120 golf carts was booked solid this past season, and the Fingers expect to add additional units by next season.

A staff of 130 employees helps the Fingers keep the place running on an even keel. “Everything has to click to make it work,” Shelly stressed.

The park earned LSI’s Pinnacle Award and Campground of the Year in 2010 and is eligible for the Pinnacle honor again this year.

Improvements this year included two Yogi cabins (two more will be added over the winter) and an umbrella over part of the pool area.

The Fingers are veteran park operators, having owned their own resort in Michigan as well as running state forest campgrounds in Arizona and Michigan.

They note two big changes in the campground industry in recent years: the rising expectations of campers and the growing presence of social media. The latter is most evident in the park’s Facebook page, which has 5,000 friends nationwide.

State Park Welcomed Minnesotans during Neighbor’s Shutdown

Perrot State Park, a 102-site state park located along the Mississippi River near Trempealeau, Wis., heard from new campers during the Minnesota shutdown.

Manager Lois Larson said staff turned away dozens of callers searching for a campsite for the July 4 weekend, as the state park was already booked solid.

“If we had another 50 campsites, we would have filled them,” said Larson.

As it was, the park recovered from the wet June, welcomed many Minnesota campers in July and proceeded to notch a strong finish, likely up a little from last year, she said.

Minnesota Shutdown Hurt Municipal Park

Pam and Walt Smith

Pam and Walt Smith, managers of the city-owned Sherwood Forest Campground, a Good Sam-affiliated municipal park in Gilbert, Minn., have bittersweet memories of the 2011 season.

Due in large part to the state park shutdown in July, “tourism was down 30% in Minnesota this year and we figure we were too,” said Pam, who runs the day-to-day operations at the park.

The shutdown gutted their July business. The municipal park is located adjacent to a magnificent Off-Highway-Vehicle (OHV) resort suited for three-wheelers, four-wheelers, motorcycles and Jeep-like vehicles, so when the state shut down, so did the OHV park, which generates 90% of the park’s traffic.

It could have killed the season.

But the Smiths say 2011 wasn’t as bad as first feared. Business bounced back, and the place, located just inland from the state’s North Coast along Lake Superior, was humming when we visited in the third week of September. The OHV facility makes Sherwood Forest Campground a real destination park, and there is no denying Minnesotans their chance to recreate.

The Smiths also heavily promote the attractions within an hour’s drive of the campground. These include the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing and the International Wolf Center in Ely.

In their third season as managers, the Smiths take pride in the Good Sam affiliation which they worked hard to acquire.

The campground – first built as a CCC Camp during the 1930s and located next to Lake Ore-Be-Gone – used to be known as a “party place” and had a poor reputation before the Smiths came onboard. The Smiths clamped down on the rowdies, established and stuck to a firm set of guidelines and curried decent seasonal campers.

The lake is home to submerged aircraft and motor vehicles that are used in training skin divers.

The Smiths urged the city of Gilbert to upgrade the campground and look forward to a grant-aided expansion over the winter.

Two Seasons at Interstate State Park

The climbing wall in Interstate State Park, Minnesota.

The 21-day shutdown in July compounded problems caused by the wet spring, creating what felt like two seasons, said Ron Erickson, manager of Minnesota’s Interstate State Park, a 37-site campground northeast of the Twin Cities.

The park is the second smallest in the state’s 57-park system but the fifth busiest, he noted. Erickson surmises traffic was down in the low double digits for the season.

That shutdown was well advertised in advance, and the day of the shutdown campers moved out in an orderly fashion.

The park reopened at noon on July 21 and “we gradually built up to normal operation,” he said.

A beautiful autumn helped bring traffic to good levels before the season ended in late October. How the new state budget will affect operations at Interstate remains in doubt, however, Erickson said.

Association Execs Comment

Traffic wasn’t down all over the Land of 10,000 Lakes, however.

“A lot of our members say it was the best year since 2007,” said Dan McElroy, executive director of the 400-member Minnesota Resort & Campground Association.

The shutdown “helped (the privates) but not as much as I wish it would have,” said McElroy. “It caused some challenges in areas where visits are attracted by the parks, like the North Coast and near Itasca State Park.” The latter, the source of the Mississippi River, is a popular draw for Europeans and with the shutdown, many just canceled and didn’t even visit the state, he said.

The Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) effectively played off the shutdown, advertising that “Wisconsin is open for business!” in media promotions, noted WACO’s executive director, Lori Severson.

After the slow start, member parks overall will end the year “flat or slightly up” from 2010, she predicted.

NEXT: Small Parks Fare Well

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