In a rather inventive response to what has become a national issue within the recreational vehicle universe, RV enthusiasts passing through Billings, Mont., can park their rigs at the local Wal-Mart for up to 10 hours, according to a new ordinance approved by the city council in March.
The new law, scheduled for a second reading on March 27, was developed after RVers threatened to boycott Billings over its refusal to allow travelers to park overnight at the local Wal-Mart. Billings has had an ordinance prohibiting overnight parking outside authorized tourist parks since 1967, but the restriction was not actively enforced until two years ago when local campground operators starting complaining about growing numbers of RVers camping at Wal-Mart.
A task force comprised of city officials and members of the local business community recommended that RVers be allowed to park at the local Wal-Mart or other locations for up to six hours. But city council members increased the time allotment to 10 hours because they felt the six-hour restriction would be difficult to enforce and because they believed that six hours would not provide travelers with sufficient time to rest.
Bringing a national glint to the debate is the fact that park franchisor Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) is headquartered in Billings. Mike Gast, KOA’s director of communications, was one of several local business leaders appointed to the task force.
He said that the new ordinance is written so that the clock starts ticking whenever RVers arrive at the local Wal-Mart. Enforcement is to be handled by Wal-Mart’s security personnel, who in turn rely on the city’s code enforcement department to issue citations to RVers that fail to comply with the 10-hour limit.
But while the situation in Billings seems to have quieted down for now, Gast said the prospect of overnight RV parking at Wal-Mart will likely remain one of the most challenging issues for campground operators across North America.
He added that the situation in Billings clearly underscores the fact that RVers will fight for their right to park overnight in retailer parking lots if they feel they may lose the right to do so.
“I do see some danger for the campground industry if we become too vocal on this issue,” he said.
On the other hand, Gast said, it’s only a matter of time before Wal-Mart begins to suffer its own set of challenges with the RVing community.
“Our (campground) traffic is up, there are more units being sold and the inventory of available campsites is dropping around the country,” he said. “Sooner or later (Wal-Mart) is going to have to decide what kind of business they’re going to be in.
“Campgrounds pay licensing fees and bed tax. Wal-Mart doesn’t. These retail outlets don’t have to worry about that. But should they be collecting bed tax for tourism, too? I think this issue will come to a head when Wal-Mart reaches the meltdown stage, when they can’t handle the traffic any more.”