Herkimer Diamond KOA: ‘Diamond in the Rough’
When Rudy and Rena Scialdo bought the Herkimer Diamond KOA campground in Herkimer, N.Y., in 1979, they literally bought a diamond in the rough. The Herkimer Diamond Mines, a unique asset waiting to be marketed properly, was just across the street from the campground.
The Scialdos and their daughter, Renée Scialdo Shevat and her husband, Sam, (who have owned and operated the campground for the past 15 years), have succeeded in doing precisely that.
Under their ownership, the 135-site campground on Highway 28 in central New York has enhanced not only its regional appeal but an international one as well. Thanks to Renée’s travels to gem shows in North America, Asia and Europe marketing the Herkimer Diamonds, the Herkimer KOA has become known worldwide and attracts an international clientele.
It is said that the farmer who owned the property many years ago where the mines are now located would see the cattle trip in his pastures, as their hooves broke through the ground. In the hole left behind, he would find a large pocket full of naturally occurring, 18-faceted quartz crystals, now known as Herkimer Diamonds.
The Herkimer Diamond Mines first opened to the public in 1955, with prospectors leaving a dollar in a mailbox as their fee. Eventually, the mines were sold to a group of investors, who built a rock shop and a public campground to serve the needs of the prospectors.
That campground eventually became the KOA gem that it is today.
At the Herkimer Diamond KOA, guests now find 135 sites, including tent and RV sites. There are also 16 kabins, five kottages and three solar-powered lodges.
Activities at the Park
On site, campers will enjoy spending time fishing in or floating down the West Canada Creek, playing disc golf and playing in the pool. There is always something fun happening during the season (April 15-Nov. 1). And of course, everyone likes to try their hand at finding fortune at the Herkimer Diamond Mines.
For a minimal fee (kids age 4 and under are free), campers receive a prospecting admission ticket/wristband, a hammer and a collector’s bag for their finds. They watch an instructional video and head off to the mining area, where they can spend the day finding – and breaking – rocks. They can then take their treasures to the rock shop to have custom jewelry made for them. Also available are sluicing bags full of rough material.
The family holdings fall under two umbrella names, Herkimer Diamond Mines Inc. and Unlocked Legends Inc. doing business as Gems Along the Mohawk, and include the campground, the diamond mines, the Crystal Chandelier restaurant next door to the mines, a fleet of two boats that cruise the Erie Canal located nine miles away and a combination restaurant and gem store that adjoins the cruise terminal.
By marketing the holdings as a package, the owners have been able to increase average camper stays from an average of 2.1 nights to 2.8 nights.
The value-added commodity “encourages them to spend more time in the area. It’s worked for many people, not just us,” Renée said.
At the Outset
Rudy Scialdo was a successful building contractor in the area when a banker friend approached him in 1979 and asked him to appraise the campground, which was going through bankruptcy. Appraisal in hand, the banker asked Scialdo if he wanted to buy it!
The Scialdos talked it over with their children, Rudy and Renée, and decided to go forward.
“I’ll Give You One Year, Mom and Dad”
When the Scialdos turned 70, they broached the idea of their daughter taking over the business. Renée was firmly entrenched as a professor at Potsdam College and, according to Rudy, would have become the college president some day. Her doctorate was in leadership and management.
In a compromise, Renée said she would give her parents one season. Running the campground grew on her, however, and became her passion. In it, she could combine her quest to educate others and promote environmental issues while running a business.
The First “Solar Kolony”
In the ensuing 15 years, Renée has turned the campground into one of KOA’s finest parks (it earned Campground of the Year honors in 2009). Its centerpiece is the “Solar Kolony,” a collection of three fully furnished park model cabins, which are powered exclusively by solar panels with a backup propane generator.
Herkimer Diamond KOA installed its first solar powered park model cabin from Phoenix, Ariz.-based Cavco Industries Inc. in May 2010. The unit was so popular with campers that Renée decided to install two more of Cavco’s solar powered park models the following year, thus creating the nation’s first “Solar Kolony.”
The 400-square-foot units, each of which sleeps six, are each unique, but still have one thing in common: green technologies. Some of the units feature bamboo flooring, LED lighting, recycled axels and tires, recycled lumber composite decking, on-demand water heating, energy-efficient heating and air-conditioning as well as a complete assortment of eco-friendly cleaning and bathroom products, including coreless toilet paper that leaves no cardboard core at the end of the roll. Even the units’ Amish-style furniture has been manufactured from recycled milk jugs and recycled hickory wood.
Storage tanks capture rainwater that falls on the units so that it can be used to irrigate an organic vegetable and herb garden. Park guests are encouraged to pick vegetables and herbs from the garden during the summer months for their own use.
Guests not only have an opportunity for a great camping experience, but the dwelling itself becomes an educational tool, Renée explained. Her hope is that guests not only come to enjoy the park and Solar Kolony with friends and family, but come away inspired to live a greener lifestyle. “Our Solar Kolony guests live it, experience it, and play with the buttons in there. They learn about the carbon footprint,” Renée said.
Marketing the Herkimer Diamond
For much of its life, the campground had been marketed on a regional level. Located in the center of the state, it drew campers from the state and those states contiguous to New York. Then Renée took the Herkimer Diamond to the Travel Channel in 2007.
“After we appeared on the Travel Channel, our market grew,” she said.
She advertises the campground and mines along the New York State Thruway, in lapidary journals and in “I Love New York” publications.
Right after the tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, killing more than 15,000, Renée took part in a benefit on the Japanese equivalent of the QVC Network to raise money for the relief effort.
Between consumer, RV, boat and jewelry events, she works 36 trade shows annually. Her show tour takes her to gem shows in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Munich, among other locales. Her boat captains also attend consumer boating shows to attract motorcoach groups to the region.
“Together, with a great staff, we created the largest jewelry store in Upstate New York. We opened up Mines 2 and 3, doubled and expanded the museum, the quality and amount of items, we quadrupled the income at the KOA, we developed cottages, lodges, the Solar Kolony, the organic gardens…”
As many as five hundred people a day from all around the world visit the Herkimer Diamond Mines to prospect. It is not surprising to see prospectors from Sweden, Australia, France, California, Canada, Korea, Japan and Germany.
In order to preserve the supply of these precious stones for future generations and avoid over-saturation of the marketplace, some restrictions have been imposed on what tools may be used to prospect for the diamonds. Power tools, such as jackhammers and jacks, are not allowed at most of the mines. There are also restrictions on the weight of sledgehammers which may be used. At the mines, every prospector is provided with an appropriate hammer with an admission pass.
In June 2009, the third diamond mine was opened to the public.
Renée recalls, “When we blasted the third mine and opened it up, I thought we were giving out $100 bills. The public was so excited we had opened up new turf for them.”
The Herkimer Diamond Mines boasts the largest jewelry, rock and gem store in the Northeast. Renée has introduced many more designs through her more than 40 jewelry designers. An extensive museum with authentic fossilized dinosaurs includes a Herkimer Diamond Hall of Fame, a Children’s Reading Room and an exhibit of the largest and finest cut Herkimer Diamonds.
The museum also showcases an authentic dinosaur skull, fondly referred to as “Randy.”
Renée’s mom and dad (in their 80s) are still active at the Gift Shop. “They’re not working, they’re ‘volunteering their energy air.’ My mom is the greatest Wal-Mart concierge greeter imaginable, says Renée.
“Of course, the Mines are a huge draw for the Herkimer KOA,” notes Pat Hittmeier, president of KOA. “But what we hear from KOA guests time and time again is how well they’re taken care of when they stay there.”
That includes, he said, the friendliness of the staff and their willingness to go out of their way to meet the needs of campers.
“At KOA, we frequently survey our campers,” Hittmier noted, “and time and time again, this campground gets some of the highest scores anywhere in North America. It’s an outstanding accomplishment that accurately reflects the outstanding efforts of the Scialdos and the Shevats.”
2012 Recap; Look Ahead to 2013
“Every year we’ve tried to use something that gives us ‘Diamond stilts,’ elevates our image and puts us on a bigger stage,” Renée said.
“One year the Travel Channel did it for us. Another year it was our appearance on the ‘Jay Leno Show” in 2006. Another year it was the Solar Kolony. Another year the Dan Aykroyd vodka.”
In 2011, Renée took the Herkimer Diamonds to the Home Shopping Network and set a network record by selling out the jewelry in seven minutes when it should have taken 24 hours.
In 2012, it was the introduction of a second boat, the ‘Lil’ Diamond, to carry tourists up and down the Erie Canal. Also in 2012, the campground underwent infrastructure changes such as a new fenceline, expanded pool, 10 additional tent sites and expanded organic garden.
For 2013, she anticipates more tent sites, more pads for RV sites and what she calls an “astronomy lodge” that will put campers “closer to the stars.” Cavco will build that unit – which she hopes to unveil in April.
At the diamond mine, she wants to put up an arched pavilion between the mine and the warehouse to create another venue for prospectors to clean their cracked rocks.
No Easy Answer
When asked what gives Renée the most satisfaction from all these ventures, she had a complex answer: “Some days I wake up and I’m a leader, trying to develop strategy and vision. Some days, I get up and I’m a manager and I try to develop a mission. But every day I am an educator.
“I like to use our vision and focus on experiences. I don’t want to just own a campground, or a diamond mine. I want to create an experience for the customer to take away. For us, work is theater but it is also our passion. We take it to a more authentic investment of time.
“When a little girl comes into the diamond store and finds a diamond and makes a piece of jewelry with it, that is a memorable experience for her; that is what I find rewarding. Or a little boy who has never camped or fished before and we show him what a trout looks like or he finds a crayfish – that is memorable.
“Despite the economy, we have had steady incremental growth in all four of our businesses the last 15 years consecutively. I think the reason is we lead, we manage, we educate. No matter where we are, we are utilizing our distinctions, our diamond mines and the Erie Canal. We leverage that every day of the year,” says Renée.
“I’m so in favor of thinking of experiences and taking it to a whole new level.”
Name: Herkimer Diamond KOA
Location: 4626 State Route 28, Herkimer, N.Y. 13350
Management: Renée Scialdo Shevat and her husband, Sam Shevat
Number of Sites: 135 total sites including 26 rentals units, of which three are solar-powered park model lodges
Physical Description: Located on a 37-acre flatland bounded on one side by the West Canada Creek. Herkimer Diamond Mines is located across the highway from the campground.