Editor’s Note: The following story ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader updating status on David Garvin’s massive development catering to tourists and RV enthusiasts on 900 acres in Franklin, Ky. Garvin, who founded RV accessories retailer Camping World in nearby Bowling Green, announced initial plans for the ambitious development around a year ago. Despite the failed passing of a bill that would have provided tax breaks for sporting goods giant Cabella’s to locate at the mega-park, Garvin is confident the project remains on schedule.
Driving up Interstate 65 toward his office in Bowling Green, Ky., David Garvin gestured to a long brown and gold recreational vehicle traveling in the opposite direction.
“There’s our customer right there,” he said. “That guy’s got a $150,000 to $200,000 motor home, and he loves to come and get stuff for it.”
Garvin, who founded the national RV accessories and supply company Camping World, is developing what he calls “a must-go-to place” for travelers on 900 acres that line I-65 in Simpson County.
Although he intends for the site – which will be called Garvin’s – to cater to all kinds of visitors, many of its attractions will be geared toward RVers.
He expects the park to draw 1.8 million people and generate $50 million in revenues in its first year.
Garvin hopes a centerpiece of the development will be outdoor sporting-goods retailer Cabela’s, known for its museum-like atmosphere, which includes taxidermy displays, large aquariums, restaurants and gun libraries.
But a bill that would have given Cabela’s millions of dollars in tax breaks if it moved to Kentucky failed to be passed by the state legislature last week, making the company’s location here even more iffy.
Garvin said he “kind of doubts” Cabela’s would open a Kentucky store without economic incentives, but he’s still hopeful the legislature will somehow approve them.
“I don’t feel like this is dead,” he said last week. “Somehow I feel like we’ll be able to work something out.”
Garvin estimated that Cabela’s would spend “$45 million and maybe more” to build here and would draw 3 million people to its store each year.
Regardless of whether Cabela’s comes to Kentucky, Garvin will continue with his development.
“It’s a key component, but there are many other components,” said Steve Snodgrass, president of Garvin’s.
Plans also include hotels, restaurants and a 20-story ferris wheel with climate-controlled gondolas (each holds eight people) that will cost $6.5 million.
“It would be the largest wheel in the United States,” Garvin said. “It’s like a piece of art.”
He’s also planning an RV accessories and supplies store, decorating center, detail shop, repair center and fueling stations, as well as a driving course for RV practice and free camping for RVers. A mini grocery store will serve visitors.
Garvin also would like to get an IMAX theater onto the site.
Bowling Green Technical College will break ground later this year on a new center in an industrial park near Garvin’s. Among the programs to be offered there is RV repair technician training, which Garvin said could supply a “built-in work force” for his development.
Though he admits “it does sound ambitious,” Garvin said he expects much of the development to be open by next summer.
‘The middle of everywhere’
The property lines both sides of I-65 for a mile and a half.
“Access and visibility are very important,” Garvin said. “We’ve got it in spades.”
He said he looked at three other locations – I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, I-95 in North Carolina and I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley – before choosing Franklin.
“You look at it, and it kind of looks like the middle of nowhere,” Garvin said, but he pointed out that an estimated 50,000 people travel the stretch of interstate that runs past his property every day and 184 million people live within a day’s drive.
The development’s slogan is “the middle of everywhere.”
He initially estimated the cost of the development at $53 million, but he’s since revised that upward.
“I’d say it’s going to be closer to $70 million by the time we get everything built,” Garvin said.
Garvin, 62, is the chairman of the company; his son David C. Garvin and Snodgrass, a former Camping World executive, are co-presidents.
On the inside track
Garvin “has tremendous support at the highest levels of state government,” said Jim Henderson, Simpson County judge-executive. “It has fueled a fast-track for several highway improvements that we were already planning for.”
The state Transportation Cabinet will begin widening I-65 to six lanes from the state line to Bowling Green soon, something it has already done farther north. It also plans to rework the exit ramps at Exit 6, where Garvin’s property sits, and widen Ky. 100, which runs alongside the property.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher and then-Commerce Secretary Jim Host appeared at a news conference on Garvin’s farm last year to announce the development, and on a brief video on the development’s Web site, Fletcher says the project “is going to be a tremendous asset to this part of the state.”
Local officials are excited about the project, too.
“Exit 6 has been really kind of underdeveloped for a long time,” said Franklin Mayor Jim Brown. “We’re thinking it’s going to be a great thing for our downtown.”
He said he expects the development to bring more hotels and restaurants to the small city, and to draw people off the interstate and into antique stores downtown.
Henderson said most people he’s heard from in the community are “thrilled.”
“There are folks who wonder about that kind of growth. They wonder if that will adversely affect our landscape,” he said. “My response to that is, if it were anybody besides David Garvin, I would be concerned.”
‘Loyal to the area’
Garvin, who works more comfortably in faded denim than a business suit, has an office in the restored 1790s farmhouse where his father was born. On a recent afternoon, Garvin set up a CD player that sent martin calls through an open window – the outdoor lover’s attempt to attract birds to a new martin house he’d installed out back. On his calendar was marked the date a mother goose began sitting on the nest in a house he’d built on the pond nearby.
But it’s Garvin’s business acumen that has earned him respect throughout southwestern Kentucky.
“He’s generous, and he’s loyal to the area,” said Bill Davis, chairman of the economics department at Western Kentucky University. Although he doesn’t know Garvin personally, Davis said he’s followed plans for the development from a distance.
“The numbers that they’re giving, they’re plausible in my opinion,” Davis said. “Mr. Garvin, he doesn’t make too many mistakes.
“He’s got a good track record. He’s in a business he knows well. Looks to me like it’s going to be a hit.”
In addition to Camping World, Garvin has been involved in a number of other business endeavors, including banking, pharmaceuticals and advertising.
And he’s taken on a number of community improvement projects in the Bowling Green area, including restoring two historic bridges and beautifying a riverfront area.
He also continues to farm, growing soybeans and corn and running a small thoroughbred breeding operation on his 2,200-acre Ironwood Farm near Bowling Green.
He and Snodgrass motor to and from the site in their “farm car,” a white Lincoln with leather seats, accompanied by Garvin’s border collie, Blue, and cairn terrier, Sam, who go to work with him almost every day.
“I’m having more fun now than I’ve had in a long time,” he said.
Garvin, who describes himself as “an incurable entrepreneur,” founded Camping World in 1966, when he saw a market for RV accessories among campers visiting his father’s Bowling Green amusement park, Beech Bend.
He and nine other shareholders sold the company to the California-based Affinity Group Inc. for $89 million nine years ago, according to the trade publication RV News. AGI also paid $19 million for non-competition and consulting agreements with some Camping World executives, and some execs got incentive agreements valued at a total of $15 million.
Camping World is still headquartered in Bowling Green and has more than 40 stores.
Garvin continued to serve on the company’s board of directors until last fall, when he said he resigned. He said he is no longer bound by a non-compete contract with Camping World.
He said his new development project is an amalgamation of his background in retail and entertainment.
So far, the Garvins and Snodgrass have not begun marketing the project, but they expect to soon, using a strategy they used at Camping World. They’ll hire couples who enjoy RVing and send them out to campgrounds around the country to talk up the new project this fall.
“RVers gather at night. They love to talk,” he said. “It’s amazing how far word will travel.”