Saturday, October 2, 2021

Will Gay Campgrounds Go The Way of Gay Bars?

When people leave the ghetto, they often leave ghetto businesses behind.

I mentioned before how in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, there was a big black business district that existed, during the era of segregation.  As a result, a middle-class black merchant class emerged.  But with the end of segregation, many of these black-owned businesses floundered, as blacks migrated to the lower prices and better selection of the larger, white-owned businesses.  Something was lost there, but more was gained - segregation was wrong.

But that is not the only example of how ghetto economics works.  We see today, in many small towns and large cities, Hispanic enclaves with small shopping plazas with businesses serving the Latino community.  We have one in our hometown - a great small Mexican restaurant, a Bodega selling Latin food items, and a burner cell phone store.   Your town probably has a similar mall.  These are all businesses owned by Hispanics, and serve the Hispanic "community" - and Spanish is the preferred language.

We've seen similar strip-malls in Syracuse (Dewitt) and Jacksonville, with Indian restaurants, grocery stores, and other retail outlets serving the Indian community.  If you are making a spicy Vindaloo, changes are, Walmart doesn't have the ingredients you need.

But as second- and third-generations of immigrants come of age, I suspect they become more mainstreamed, and want to hang out with their peers and eat at McDonald's or whatever.  And they probably look at the "old world" traditions and foods and dances and languages as something archaic.  I know this happened in my family - and other families as well.  My Polish friends, for example, were raised in a Polish neighborhood in Hartford. Their parents spoke Polish and stayed with their own kind.  My friends, however, mixed more with mainstream America.  And their children?  They don't even speak Polish.  From Immigrant to American - it takes only two or three generations.

I mentioned before about gay ghettos, which worked the same way.  Some neighborhoods - the Castro, Dupont Circle, the East Village, Key West, West Hollywood - were notoriously gay.  As one friend put it, when I moved to the Washington area back in 1987, "I live in a gay neighborhood, have a gay landlord, a gay boss, a gay job, and even a gay mechanic for my car!"   I am not sure what the advantage of that was, other than perhaps they perceived safety in numbers.  Back then, gay men were being beaten to death, and the bored suburban teens who did that knew exactly which neighborhood to go to, to find victims.  So maybe there wasn't as much safety, as it was visibility.

But in 30 years much has changed.  The old gay neighborhoods have been gentrified, and most of the gays sold out and moved out, much as most minorities do, once they are accepted into a greater society.  Gay bars have closed, one by one, as the younger gays find it much easier to be accepted at a "regular" bar, where they can go with their straight friends.  It is a whole new world, and maybe the smart phone is part of this - picking up a mate isn't a matter of hanging out in bars anymore, for gays or straights.  You log onto an app and "swipe right" or whatever.

So, what will happen to other gay businesses?  Specifically, gay campgrounds?  I wrote about them before, and not in a positive light.  Many are marginal businesses, started on a shoestring budget, with little or no capital to invest.  Some start out as a house with some acreage and morph into campgrounds.  Others, ironically, as abandoned Christian Bible Camps (so.... previously a gay campground, right?).  A surprising number, in fact, are made from old abandoned Christian Camps.  Weird.

The common denominator is a lack of capital for infrastructure, which is installed ad-hoc, using money from the income stream to finance.  Lack of proper sewer connections and treatment is very common.  Often power is sort of sketchy.  A few places  have bit the bullet and invested major dollars in infrastructure - they are struggling too, financially.   We've visited 11 gay campgrounds this summer, and of the eleven, about nine are for sale.  Funny thing, too, with CoVid, most owners report record attendance and record profits.  So why sell?

Well, with the exception of a very few places, most are run by an overworked gay couple, who have aged-out and are just tired of doing all the work for not a lot of money and not a lot of gratitude.  The hospitality business (which is what any campground is) is difficult in good times.  You have to be good with people when serving the public.   I would suck at it - I would be surly and mean and people would leave in droves.  And this happens, too!

We stayed at one campground in New Hampshire, and the owner was, to say the least, unpleasant.  He harangued and harassed the guests, and when we were there, one "permanent" guest RV unit was for sale.  By the time we left, four were on the market.  The whole campground was for sale, of course, but I suspect it would be a hard sell.  The owner was doing everything in all-cash (hello IRS?) so on paper, at least, he was hemorrhaging cash.  Kind of hard to get a bank loan to buy such a place, with no record of profits.

And that's the problem right there - most of the places for sale are asking $750,000 to $1.5 million, which is what some folks pay for a house in the Bay area.  Not a staggering amount of money, but most folks don't have that kind of cash laying around.  And you'd need to plow a similar amount into most of these places to bring them up to code.  So without a lot of capital, it is a non-starter.  And most folks who have that kind of capital, don't want to risk it on a sketchy venture that might go bust.

But the worst part is the amount of work involved.  I'm 61 years old, and at this stage in my life, I don't want to risk my accumulated wealth on a new business venture, when it will provide me with a comfortable retirement.  Most others are in a similar predicament.  In fact, that is the reason most owners are selling - they are getting older, the amount of work is "too much" for a 60-something, and they'd like to cash-out and retire someday, preferably today.

Then there is zoning.  One campground in Florida has an ongoing war with the local zoning board.  They installed a swimming pool without a permit, and the permit people had a meltdown.  So the campground owners filled the swimming pool with sand.  I guess that showed them!  Like I said, sewer connections or septic systems are a big problem and often growth is limited because they might be only permitted for so many connections.

One of the biggest gay campgrounds on the East coast, Sawmill, went through this, spending more than a million dollars (I am told) on new septic systems.  That campground was sold to the residents, who each own a "share" in the place, like a condominium.  They finally hired a professional manager, who pushed through infrastructure improvements - new gravel roads, 50 Amp electrical service at the sites, concrete pads, and so on.  The "Perms" started to realize that the "Transients" were bringing in the bulk of the profits - a transient camper will pay more for a week's stay than a "Perm" will pay for a month.

On top of that, they have a bar, which is a real money-maker.  Well, it is now.  Due to CoVid, they decided to go to credit-card only for bar sales, and overnight, income doubled and the entire bar staff quit.  Seems that in the cash era, they were pocketing half the cash sales for themselves.  Like I said, they have a professional manager now, and the place is much improved.

But sadly, this is the exception to the rule.  Other places have similar issues, but no way to resolve them.  Owners don't want to spend the money on a liquor license (which is a lucrative cash-cow) so they forgo the income.  Another place we visited - a very nice place, also for sale - is operating on a temporary zoning variance, which is not transferrable to the new owner.  You would have to buy the place and then contact zoning to see if they will issue a new variance, or a permanent variance.  I suspect it would be difficult to do either.

You see there is still prejudice, and many of these gay campgrounds are way, way out in the country, often in Counties where there are a lot of conservative people.  So fights with local zoning boards are not uncommon, and getting a liquor permit from the County can be problematic - if some county clerk decides its against their religion to process your request.  Yea, that shit happens, I've seen it firsthand.

But this raises the question: Why do these places exist at all?  The answer is multi-fold.  To begin with, many are "clothing optional" and some folks enjoy the naturist lifestyle (It's OK, I guess, but not something I would seek out).  Others live at such places, at least part of the year, and look at them as a cheap retirement community.  Others come for the disco dancing and partying.  Others seek out sex or companionship.  There is more than one angle that draws people.

But for the most part, it is an older crowd.  As one camper pointed out to me, "Look around you, everyone here is our age!" And by "our age" I mean 50 and older, often far older.  Some campgrounds attract younger people - in their 30's - who come for the weekend and camp out in tents.  But it seems the age factor is part of the problem.  Will the younger people go to gay campgrounds as they get older, or are they relics of a bygone age?  Hard to say, but that is the risk you are taking if you buy a gay campground.

I think, in order to go forward, a gay campground owner would have to invest a lot of money on improving infrastructure.  Some gay campgrounds are nearly all "perms" - and the real money is made not by renting out a site to a "Perm" for $400 a month, but to a "Transient" for $50 a night.  Not only that, you have to get that liquor license and sell drinks out by the pool as an additional revenue stream.  This means hiring people to work as servers and bartenders, and that gets expensive and involves more risk.  And not many people want to risk it all if the payout isn't there.

And given the location and state of many of these campgrounds, it may be easier to simply start over with a new site and build one up from scratch.  But that raises another issue - if you build it, will they come? (no pun intended).  You see, many of these campgrounds have a core loyal following, usually people from the same nearby (1-2 hours away) city, or folks who go to the same gay bar.  Like any business you buy, chances are, the clientele might not transfer to the new owner.  Or if they do, you may find your "inventory" to be outdated.

I think, in order to make such a business model work, you'd have to have a lot of capital - not just to purchase the place, but to make improvements - and it would could not be borrowed money.  If you had a huge mortgage nut to crack every month, it just wouldn't work - assuming any bank in its right mind would lend you the money in the first place.

Next, you'd have to market yourself, which requires yet more money.  You have to advertise and promote the place, and hope to attract a younger audience as well as different ethnic groups. While some gay campgrounds are multi-cultural, others seem to be mostly white. In fact, one campground in particular seems to be that way on purpose, if the online reviews are to be believed.

Sadly, most of these gay campgrounds do little or nothing in terms of marketing.  Many seem to resent "transient" visitors and want instead to run a retirement home, which is nice, until all your guests kick the bucket.  An over-55 gay community is one thing, but it isn't a campground.

Some do "event" weekends, which can be fabulous or flops, depending on the attendance and the guest.  You can't promote a "uniform weekend" and have only one guy show up in uniform (their "toga" weekend was better attended).  Sometimes it is better not to have "theme" weekends at all, unless you plan on following through with the theme, which takes time and costs money.

So what will happen to all these gay campgrounds?  Beats me, although I suspect that many of the more marginally financed and under-capitalized places may go by the wayside.  Some of the campgrounds currently "for sale" may end up becoming something else - private homes again, or housing developments.

Some new campgrounds have opened in recent years, with mixed results.  One in Florida (again, built on the bones of a "troubled youth" camp) recently made news when they forgot to pay their property taxes and had to refinance their bank note with the seller they bought the place from.  Apparently the main road washed out as well.  And they don't have the capital to install real RV sites.  They have a small following, but not enough to pay the mortgage, apparently.

Another one that opened this year in Pennsylvania, is apparently a gay campground during the weekends, but operates as a Jewish Youth Camp during the week, all summer long.  And the owner hasn't made many friends in the process, apparently.  He got snookered by the previous owners, who sold him the land, but put a clause in the contract allowing them to run a Jewish day camp all summer long, for $1 a year.  Since summer is the best month, he basically can't use the place - he would be better off letting the property go to foreclosure.  What sort of idiot signs a purchase agreement like that?

From my perspective, it doesn't seem like a workable business model, to share the same campsite on different days of the week or different times of the year.  In fact, to have a gay campground, you have to have acres and acres of land - "owning is zoning" because all it takes is one bad neighbor to mess things up.  We've been to one gay campground where the neighbor flies an enormous confederate flag and spreads chicken manure on his fields before major weekends.  You need to own more land than that, period.  At other campgrounds, including some pretty famous ones, agitated neighbors will shoot off guns - including automatic weapons - nearby, to intimidate the campers.  It is a little unnerving, as you don't know where those bullets are going to land.

A few have gone out of business in years gone by - or changed owners.  Drugs are often involved, according to some sources - usually methamphetamine.  Owners on those sort of drugs don't pay attention to details and often "start things" with guests, who then flee in droves.  I know of this happening to at least three campgrounds.  Two were sold to other owners who straightened things out, one just fell off the map, apparently.

And I suspect a few more will, too, in the coming years, unless someone with a lot of cash steps up to the plate and invests a boatload of money into these places.  And that's assuming there is a demographic that isn't aging-out, who will want to attend.  It may be that gay campgrounds become another relic of a bygone age.

We'll just have to wait and see!