Campgrounds said to bounce back from uncertain start of season

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A bright spot in the summer pandemic economy of the Mohawk Valley appears to have been campgrounds, whose state trade association reports members had a much better year than expected when it started out, and some even having one of their better seasons ever.

Some members of the Campground Owners of New York group reported business was up as much as 40% over 2019. The credit goes to the COVID-19 pandemic itself, which appears to have encouraged more people to try camping when other recreation and travel options were impossible or seen as risky, and from veteran campers who opted to stay close to home this year, according to the organization. The Rochester-area-based group represents the private campgrounds and RV park industry in New York an operates the CampNewYork.com website.

“They don’t want to stay in hotels, and they realize that with camping you have your own housing situation right with you,” said Truman Hartshorn of Lebanon Reservoir Campground in Madison County. “I think people perceive it as much safer.”

The season, which at many campgrounds ends Columbus Day weekend, did not start well. After state orders closed non-essential businesses in mid-March, the go-ahead for campgrounds to open did not come from state government until just before Memorial Day weekend. Oneida County had set July 1 and then June 1, when state park campgrounds were to start their seasons, but moved it ahead when the state opening was announced. The delay frustrated many campground owners and campers. At Paradise Cove in Sylvan Beach, the opening is normally May 1, so those with seasonal sites got pro-rated credit or payments for the lost time.

“We lost a month of revenue between the seasonal sites and the camp store, the propane, the firewood, that sort of thing,” said Pam Bonnice, who co-owns Paradise Cove with her husband, Dave. “We lost financially quite a bit, but I guess that’s better than not opening at all over the summer.”

Campers expressed frustration over the delay.

“I think a lot of what campground owners were upset about is everyone has their own camper, so i would have been just like people being at their own homes coming here and just staying at their campsite,” Bonnice said.

Paradise Cove is a seasonal-stay campground, where visitors typically have a site for the season, and only two or three reservations were canceled, Bonnice said. What was different this year was the lack of planned activities, which were not held to avoid large gatherings. Friends and family of campers were allowed in small groups, however, and campers generally found ways to enjoy the summer.

“People just kind of sat at their camp fires and had camp fires. I did let friends and family of our campers come in starting in July. I just asked them to limit the number that they had. They were all really good about it and kept to themselves. It was actually quite nice.”

At Lebanon Reservoir Campground, some of the new faces may have been people new to camping, but Hartshorn said most were people who might otherwise have traveled farther but were sticking close to home in this weird, pandemic-modified season.

“A lot of people didn’t realize what the options were close by apparently. They thought of camping as going up north or going farther away.”

Hartshorn’s campground has about 135 sites on a lake built in the 1830s for the Chenango Canal, which linked Binghamton to the Erie Canal at Utica, and now state-maintained for boating, fishing and swimming. Most are seasonal but a few are for short-term visitors.

As at Paradise Cove, planned activities were put on hold, and a foam park and bounce house from previous years went unused. But there was min-golf, a game room, playground and kayak rentals.

“They didn’t really need planned activities, because each family was just by themselves,” Hartshorn said. “They were so anxious to get out after a long winter. They wanted to get out and do things.”

The camp store was up and sold a surprising amount of clothes. Hartshorn surmised people had been unable to shop at home and were buying up sweatshirts, jackets, T-shirts and the like.

Looking ahead, Harshorn is positive on next season proceeding with plans to prepare new camp sites, those they likely won’t be ready in 2021.

Similarly, Bonnice is optimistic about next year and is planning for the regular activities resume, knowing of course that the pandemic is the great unknown.

“I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that things are able to be back to normal as far as the activities that we provide here,” she said. “I have to alter them, then absolutely I will just like I did this year. We’re going to hope for a normal year next year, and keep our fingers crossed.”

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