by Rick Stryker, P.E.
Without a doubt, these are tough, tough economic
times. Enrollment may be down. In some cases,
enrollment may even be shrinking as people cancel
reservations that have been in place for months.
Every corner of every organization is being scoured
for waste. Even the couch in the staff lounge
has been gleaned for loose change. If you've
already cut all of the fat that you can find
and are preparing to "hunker down," perhaps
you should start thinking about investing in
your property itself. While it may sound counter-intuitive,
this is absolutely the ideal time to take some
steps that will help you move quickly when the
economy turns around. I'm talking about
planning. Not just the "thinking about
doing something" sort of planning but the
very real process by which you prepare to grow
the property to better support the existing programs
and bring new program offerings to the brochure.
With strip malls and big box stores in the front
of their minds, many people in camping chafe
at the idea that the improvements on their property
constitute "land development." But
if you think about it, not only is it a land
development, but it's actually a small
town! There are residences with various levels
of service from simple shelters for campers to
sleep in to year-round homes for staff. Public
water supplies (and the ones at camp are absolutely "public
water supplies" by definition in the federal
Safe Drinking Water Act) provide water for drinking,
cooking, toilets, showers, irrigation, and cleaning.
And after the water's been used, there
are wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal
systems. There are roads and parking areas to
accommodate staff and visitor vehicles. These
shed rainwater and snow melt, sending pollutants
to streams, tributaries, and lakes.
prevailing camp philosophy has been and continues
to be, one focused on conservation and stewardship.
No matter how remote the property, what happens
at camp eventually spills onto neighboring properties
down wind, downhill, or downstream. So despite
many instances of seemingly obtrusive and overreaching
government regulation, that tenet remains at
the heart of those rules. The provisions in place
to care for the environment are as much about
stewardship education as they are about enforcement.
Camps, then, are the ideal place to educate guests
about stewardship by showcasing as many of the
best industry practices as they can accommodate.
The Business Side of Land Development
What do you know? Camps are land developments!
But the question remains: "What's this
have to do with making hay, right now?" There
are a bunch of reasons, but they all begin with
understanding the business part of the land development
process. Typically, the would-be Donald Trumps
borrow the money to purchase the property with
relatively short-term loans. Property in hand,
the developer pays engineers to arrange the site,
develop the designs, and pursue the permits.
Depending on the site, the applicable regulations,
and the complexity of the final project, this
process can take many months to several years.
But since short-term purchase money is hard to
come by right now, work is pretty slow in the
land development consulting business. The surveyors
who collect the data and draw the maps and the
engineers who use those maps for their designs
are looking for work, and this means that they're
available to work for you. Although they're
generally strangers to camps, they do have experience
in applying the land development regulations,
processes, and procedures. This is the beginning
of an ideal match, but only the beginning.
The other half of the question is, "Why
now?" Let's consider the surveying
portion first. The investment in thoroughly mapping
the property will absolutely appreciate in value
because it will only get more expensive to develop
over time. As you change property amenities,
updating the base mapping will be quick and easy.
It will serve as the base document for any programmatic
plans and dreams and can be easily transferred
on a moment's notice. It forms the base
for mapping all of the buried components including
water supply, sewage disposal, gas, electric,
and culverts — surprises from digging only
need to happen once if they're accurately
mapped as you find them. In short, once it's "in
the can," it's there to be used.
And, what can your engineer do with all of that
information that your surveyor has collected?
First and foremost, you need to know where your
property currently stands with respect to the
existing regulations. Your engineer should take
the complete map and reconcile it against all
of the applicable rules and prepare an extensive,
detailed list of irregularities and nonconformities.
Never fear! Your engineer's no tattle tale!
His job is to educate you about the areas on
the property that simply don't conform
to the rules. Unless something represents a danger
to your staff or guests, that information is
your "head's-up" as you plan
the next steps in program growth. For example,
one item that should come out is a broad assessment
of the wastewater disposal system's capacity
as it relates to the other occupancies of the
property including parking, bed space, and seats
in the dining hall. For example, what if you're
thinking about adding staff? They need a place
to sleep, water for showering, sewage disposal,
and a place to park. With an analysis of where
each of these facets stand on your site, you
will know at a glance what improvements you need
to accommodate any number of new employees! Moreover,
with the site mapped, you could actually prepare
plans and apply to construct the components you
need very quickly.
Different Approaches to the
Land Development Process
Education for all! Everyone's
used a hammer. Take a minute to think of all
of the things that you've done with one.
Driven nails? Sure! Taken out nails? Probably.
But what about cracking nuts, breaking a piggy
bank, or even pounding a fender dent? There are
a zillion things that you've either used
or seen a hammer used for. So although your engineer
and surveyor are very familiar with the land
development process, your needs and objectives
make the approach to the project different. Like
the hammer that has many uses, unless your engineer
really understands what you're about, he
may not think about using what he knows in different
ways and for different applications. For one
thing, your organization has probably owned and
operated the property for years and years, and
you intend to continue. This "hanging onto
the property" is a fundamental difference
between camps and run-of-the-mill land developments
because the common developer typically sells
the finished project as soon as it's complete.
You need to communicate this perspective clearly
to your consultant so that you hear about long-term
options that would never be considered by your
Another spot where
your approach may differ is in the idea of "stewardship." For
example, where stormwater management and treatment
facilities may be in the way of developing a
site for a car dealership, it can provide opportunities
to showcase camp's commitment to long-term
care of the environment and camp's role
in that. Passive treatment measures like porous
pavement, stabilized grass parking lots, and
infiltration areas can serve to educate your
staff, campers, and other guests about the benefits
of environmental care. But again, since most
of the engineer's clients aren't
in the education or stewardship business, many
of the most innovative alternatives are excluded
even before they're considered. Your engineer
needs to be specifically told, and then re-told,
that they're not just allowed to think
out of the box, but that they're being
paid to think that way!
The very best part of
all of this is that these represent examples
of investments in your property's long-term
viability. The slow economy provides all sorts
of opportunities if you're thinking ahead
and pressing on instead of hiding until the smoke
clears. As a parting thought, last week I saw
someone wearing a button that displayed the most
inspiring message. It said: I REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE
IN A RECESSION. Make hay while the sun is shining
on this particular golden opportunity!
is a professional engineer specializing in helping
camps and conference centers identify facility
issues and resolve regulatory conflicts. He can
be reached at email@example.com  or 570-828-4004.
in the 2009 January/February issue of Camping