At first blush, the Massachusetts Association of Campground Owners’ (MACO) recent decision to support more funding for Massachusetts state parks appears to go against conventional wisdom.
After all, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds’ (ARVC) view on competition between public and private campgrounds has been unequivocal. ARVC’s most recent policy statement adopted in April 2001 says in part: “We do not believe that government entities should ever compete with tax-paying businesses.”
With the unlikely prospect that federal, state and local governments will shut down the thousands of campgrounds and tens of thousands of campsites they operate, MACO members and campground owners in other states, have taken what they believe is a more pragmatic approach.
“If people come camping in Massachusetts and end up in a state park and have a horrible time, they are not going to remember they were in a public park. They will only remember that they were in Massachusetts, and that hurts the private campground industry too,” said Melissa Boyton, executive director of 85-member MACO.
“State parks have inherent advantages,” she added. “They don’t pay taxes and they often are subsidized so they can offer lower rates. But to be quite honest, it bites them in the rear end because they cannot operate effectively with the budget that they are given.”
Letters MACO sent to state budget makers earlier this year urged the “appropriate staff and funds to ensure good customer service” in state parks. “We still have members who see the state parks as the enemy,” Boyton said. “But our current board feels it’s in our best interest to open a dialogue with the state.”
MACO’s attitude generally reflects that of many campground owners and state associations throughout the country: That it is better to engage the competition than to ignore it.
“There is a more cooperative attitude in many states in the last few years,” said ARVC President Linda Profaizer. “But competition with publicly owned campgrounds is very much top-of-mind as far as the association is concerned, and we deal with it continually.”
Although not shared universally, MACO’s cooperative attitude is pragmatic, according to MACO President Jim Saunders, owner of Pinewood Lodge Campground in Plymouth. Saunders’ attitude is understandable when considering that nearby Miles Standish State Park, which charges $7 a night for 450 tent sites, has pushed him out of the tent business.
But rather than fight the public parks, Saunders sought accommodation — an approach that hasn’t always been easy.
“I’d like to do more rustic business, but I’ve had to shape Pinewood Lodge toward the RV end because I can’t compete with the state park,” Saunders said. “But in the past the state has made some significant policy changes, and we’ve only found out about it afterwards. When they banned alcohol in state parks, that pushed a huge group of people who recreate that way over to me, and I wasn’t prepared for it.”
The level of budgetary support for state parks varies widely. And, whether states view state park campgrounds as revenue producers, loss leaders or as sources of recreation opportunities for residents and tourists often determines private campground owners’ outlooks.
“It’s a challenge to reconcile the competition issue nationally. Each state is different,” said Charles Amian, president of the California Travel Parks Association (CPTA) and manager of Pismo Coast Village RV Resort, Pismo Beach.