RV park ready, but are visitors?

Attracting RV traffic is next hurdle after lengthy struggle to build new campsites

Posted: Tuesday, April 04, 2000

It's built, finally. Now the question is, will they come?

Juneau will be poised for more independent visitors with the addition of a second RV park on May 1, following more than three years of struggle by the developers.

But with the recent escalation in gas prices, the drop in RV traffic on the state ferry system, and Juneau's longstanding reputation as being problematic for RVers, prospects are uncertain for the Spruce Meadow RV Park on Mendenhall Loop Road.

``It's been a long hard road,'' says Walt Marble, who developed the new 12.5-acre park with his wife, Cindy, and their friends, Anthony and Linda Williams.

In fact, the project has been delayed so long that Anthony Williams didn't live to see it come to fruition: He died of cancer last fall.

``Anthony said something to me once when I was having a bad day - and I'll never forget it - `Don't worry, Walt; we will prevail,''' Marble said. ``Nothing good comes to people easily, it seems.''

There is no question that when proposed, the RV park would have been in a market in which demand exceeded supply.

The project, when it was first being pursued in late 1996, was based on the conventional wisdom that many RVers haven't bothered to get on the ferry at Haines or Skagway because they couldn't reserve full-service spaces in Juneau. The Auke Bay RV Park generally had been full during the tourist season (although owner Vivian Kirkevold saw a dip in 1999, coinciding with a slight decline in the number of statewide ferry trips by RVs).

Meanwhile, out of necessity or frugality, numerous RVs were observed on summer nights in the large parking lots of major grocery and department stores.

Has the moment of maximum business opportunity passed?

Walt Marble doesn't think so.

Spruce Meadow has been delayed because of a contentious permitting process with the Juneau Planning Commission, some site remediation, a difficult financing process and the fact that the four partners had other jobs to attend to.

But after taking out an ad in the Milepost for two years, the partners turned away $30,000 in potential business last summer, when they were once again unable to open, Marble said. That shows the demand is there, he said. So far this year, there have been 200 contacts by phone or e-mail from RVers, he said.

At Spruce Meadow, which has 64 spaces, the charge is $22 a night for the tourism season, and $370 a month for long-term rentals.

Kirkevold, who has 41 RV spaces at Auke Bay, also charges $22 a night for a full-service hookup, and also has options for just water and electric ($20) and for no utilities ($14). Her monthly rate with utilities is $390 for long-term customers.

``I don't know what it's going to be like this year,'' Kirkevold said. At age 77, she said she's ready to retire if she doesn't have a good year.

Marble and Kirkevold both take issue with the addition of utilities for 18 improved RV spaces at the U.S. Forest Service's Mendenhall Lake campground. Those spaces rent for $18 a night, while RVers pay $8 for spaces without utilities. In all, there are 62 RV-compatible spaces.

``They aren't charging nearly an appropriate rate to get their money back,'' while providing unfair competition for the private sector, Marble said.

Forest Service recreation officer Joni Packard said that her agency has been providing RV service on the Juneau road system since 1964.

``What our mandate is, is to provide a broad range of recreational experiences for the public,'' Packard said. ``The public has been wanting us to provide those opportunities.''

But there will still be demand for private sector spaces, she said.

John Mazor, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, is bullish on the future of RV traffic.

Industry analysts expect a doubling of the traffic within seven years, based on the current rate of growth, preparations being made by RV manufacturers and a television advertising campaign by the industry, Mazor said. Baby boomers entering early retirement are particularly inclined to seek new destinations, he said.

In the short term, Mazor doesn't expect to see much impact from gas prices, unless they continue to rise. Given the cost of an RV itself, the typical traveler probably wouldn't be deterred by the recent hike at the pump, he said.

Neil MacKinnon, who was planning an RV park at the same time as the Marbles and the Williamses originally did, says he still has not given up.

The 47-space park planned for the corner of Engineers Cutoff Road and Glacier Highway has been held up partly by a dispute over refuse left on the property when it was owned by the Alaska Department of Transportation.

``Once the property's been tainted with a contamination report and until we can get it certified clean, no bank in the country is going to touch it,'' MacKinnon said.

He also sees a slump in the kind of construction jobs in Juneau that would bring up transient workers in RVs.

Nevertheless, MacKinnon expresses confidence about the future and says it's even possible his RV park could open next year.

``It probably won't be the gravy train we first projected,'' he said. ``(But) I think there's plenty of demand for everybody.''

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