Rural Crookston resident John Reitmeier knows a thing or two about RV parks. He offered some of his thoughts on the subject on the heels of the recent passionate discussion on where to put an RV park in Crookston.
Note to readers: Rural Crookston resident John Reitmeier knows a thing or two about RV parks. He offered some of his thoughts on the subject on the heels of the recent passionate discussion on where to put an RV park in Crookston. After some back and forth communication, his comments grew into the Q & A with the Times that appears here.
– Mike Christopherson, managing editor
Times: Tell us about your experiences with RVs and RV parks
Reitmeier: As a child back in the 60s my Dad first purchase one of those, slide onto the back of your emptied pickup box, with a big bed over the cab type camper. We made many miles and weekends in that, mostly to lakes and for fishing, it was top heavy, dangerous in a wind, and really not that much fun but it did ignite a part of me that likes to be "movin' on down the road!" Now, I'm on my fourth motor home. Two of them have been what are called HEAVIES, meaning about 40 feet long, sometimes with extra axles. At last count we've logged somewhere close to 120,000 miles, most all in the USA. Currently we went smaller, a 30-footer with extendable side, the van front end known as a Class-C unit.
Twenty years ago I moved back here to the farm after opening and operating the first licensed bed-andbreakfast in Franklin, Tennessee for several years. We slept as many as 14 people so keeping it full was a challenge, and I tried to do my part by also being on the county tourism committee. I learned a lot in those years. Franklin is just south of Nashville and Opryland Theme Park was in full swing back then. There were 500 buses a day making their way into Nashville, along with countless cars and RVs/motor homes of every size and shape. The big question then was how do "we," being 20 miles outside the BIG GAME, get some of that business, some of those cars and campers to come visit us. I think you can see the parallel between Nashville and Franklin, and Greater Grand Forks and Crookston. Franklin was exploding due to the recent opening of the Saturn Car manufacturing plant, just down the road from us. BUT there was no licensed campground anywhere in our county. The closest was on the north side of Nashville near the Opry complex. There were lots of big players on that committee, folks with hundreds of restaurant seats they wanted to fill, bars and entertainment venues, motels and soon other B&Bs, those nick-nack type shops full of candles and quilts and old stuff, and new stuff made to look old. I really learned a lot in those years. Many things that were 180 degrees different than I would have though, coming into the tourism business.
When I returned to the family farmstead outside Crookston, I though I'd do my share for the community by being on the newly formed Convention and Visitors Bureau Committee. (By the way, there still is not an RV Park in or near Franklin, TN.) More recently (early 2000s) I installed the pedestals and water to invite folks to camp out here at the farm. That was a fun little business that attracted mostly HEAVY units, folks passing through, who had strong reasons why they didn't want to overnight or stay in the Central Park Campground in Crookston. Business for that type of camper pretty much died in 2008 or so and although my hookups are in place, we stopped advertising/marketing, and only take in friends, or sometimes folks that used to be paying customers will stop by as their passing. They know they can just pull in and hook up and have some coffee ready the next morning.
Times: You've mentioned previously that you are glad Castle Park will not be home to an RV park. As the conversation continues on another potential location, officials and community leaders, as they talk about enhanced tourism opportunities here, have said more than once that Crookston could become sort of a "destination city." Do you agree with that? Why or why not?
Reitmeier: Let me answer that in two parts. First of all, YES, I am glad that Castle Park will NOT be home to an RV/motorhome Park. Any opposition I have to it is based purely on my feelings as a guy who often travels with a few people in a motor home. I feel that we should be aggressive in getting a place for short season (and even full season agriculture workers) but I feel that local kids, visiting workers, and passing tourists are three things that don't mix. As a HEAVY motor home driver, often pulling a tow car, I absolutely guard against driving into an unknown area where I might have to do some fancy backing up to get out. These things not only don't turn on a dime, they don't turn on the equivalent of a silver dollar. In the early days, I've even ended up in a fueling station where I had to unhook...and that's a 3-piece unhook. Car from towing dolly...move it around, towing dolly....physically put it in front of the car. Then back up, get the motor home out of its trap, and then put everything back together. Just last year, my current unit was being used by a friend of mine going to Seattle pulling some big motorcycles on a trailer. I warned him over and over about not getting trapped. Three days later he called me from somewhere in Idaho, having just had to unhook, untrap, and rehook everything, saying, "Why didn't you use sterner warnings!?" We never want to put a visitor to our town in that situation, and because most of us are very aware of it, we just won't start turning down city streets without knowing what's ahead.
I also support the local residents in not wanting a mix of visitors and their children in the same space. And I can tell you that visitors will be a lot more comfortable without local children playing, and circling. I believe a neighborhood park should stay exactly that. It's not the old, "not in my backyard" line, I don't think it should be anywhere that's a neighborhood park.
I believe we (in any variation...private, private/city co-op, city funded, city bonded etc.) should find a place and make it so that short time ag workers (like during the beet harvest) and long time ag workers (like those that work at the factory the entire cycle) can comfortably hook-up, stay a long time, and have the services, utilities, and conveniences that suit them best.
As to Crookston becoming a destination city, I just cringe every time I hear this. I cringed 20 years ago when I was on the CVB Committee, and just last June at a great tourism meeting thrown out at UMC. We often hear talk about Crookston's hotels and how they can't live on a few hockey tournaments; well it's the same. You can't keep an RV park operating on the few people that consider Crookston a destination. I really feel that we are missing a huge marketing bet by trying to be something we are not, and not cultivating what we could be!
Times: In your view, what does the typical RV'er want when they're looking for a place to spend some time? Looking at it from another angle, what things do you think are less important to most RV'ers when they're looking for a place to spend some time?
Reitmeier: I think first we should look at, "What does an RV'er who's going through our town want?...What will catch them and cause them to spend a night?" And then if we're very lucky a second...or a definite stop on their way back as they pass through town again. There's so many forms of media that you can use to catch someone (radio) but they have to be on a particular channel at the particular moment that the campground message is on...pretty remote chance for this purpose. Newspaper...a great place to tell a story but I don't know too many people who call ahead and ask for a week of a paper for a city that they're passing through. The Internet, yes, always good to have a presence, but again, you're only going to catch the people that have figured out that somewhere around here would be a good place to stop for the night, and then did some pre-searching to find it. In my experience that's again going to be very low bang for the advertising dollar. Billboards, flyers, travel magazine ads, all high cost, low return for this particular purpose. But here's the most awesome thing you can do, and it's free.
Chances are there's a ring of campgrounds around us where those that stayed in Crookston last night, and those that are heading to Crookston, both stayed at. It's logical...the day’s drive in either direction is about the same, and there's only so many choices down each of the highways. The best we got, to get someone to stop here, is for their camping neighbor to say, "Hey, which way you heading?” The response is on a road that leads here. Then that camper says..."Well, if you're heading down that road, you'll be about by Crookston tomorrow night and I'll tell you what, me and the wife had the greatest time!" Then he would go on to say that there was easy access in and out...he didn't have to BACK into a SPOT for a quick overnight. There was an attendant on duty. They felt safe. They could walk to food so mama didn't have to cook that night. They could buy some sundries.
Like it or not, I'm told over 2,000 cars a day stop at our Walmart. If you ask the law enforcement in town, they'll also tell you that most every night there's a few campers taking advantage of the "Wally World Campground," the unofficial name for parking on the outside ring of spots at a Walmart, under a powerful light. It’s a safe, well-drained space, with 24-hour access to food/beer/and most everything else. (And by the way, if we should get a great campground in town, making it illegal to have a long rest in a retail parking lot is NOT the way to make friends with travelers...when those signs are posted, for sure I'm NOT going to go pay to be in a campground in that city...EVER!) That scenario is what you want...and it's FREE! Good will and information from other RV'ers is a significant game changer.
Getting back to a blended workers camp/RV Park...do you want those same campers saying..."I'd pass on Crookston, kind of uncomfortable. Lots of loud pickup trucks coming and going through the night, we slept fitfully and left early." Which do you want passed around about Crookston? My most powerful suggestion is that the promotion to open the campground should be for the first year, FIRST NIGHT FREE! What if in the first year, you could average 20 free RV'ers? Folks with enough money to have a $30,000 to $300,000 rig. This is the ultimate way to put our city on the map! But it has to be in a campground with those same basic situations.
1. Easy on/off and through driving.
2. Attendant on site all the time.
3. Clean and kept up.
4. Walk to shopping.
5. Walk to Food.
6. Good Internet and cell phone service.
7. The feeling of safety!
I would also subsidize a cab ride from the park to the movies and back. The museum too! Whether it's a flat fee of $5 for the round trip, or some other perk. We need 1,000 RV owners to tell all their friends about how great Crookston is. Not a destination, but the greatest place to stop on your way to your adventure.
Times: It's been said that the RV campground along the river in East Grand Forks has a waiting list, and that people on that waiting list would come to Crookston instead if a nice RV park was located here. The EGF RV park's seminatural setting has been mentioned as a reason behind its success. Why do you think the EGF amenity does so well? Do you agree that RV'ers waiting to get a spot in East Grand Forks wouldn't hesitate to come to Crookston instead?
Reitmeier: I believe that, yes, if we give them the basics, that we certainly could get the overflow. AND you would get some folks that don't want the hustle and bustle that is the draw in the EGF State Recreation Area. Here's why I believe it's doing so well...and it's the same old saw. Location and Location and Location. Over there we have a former subdivision turned into an awesome campground. But it's no nicer than most other places. Do some research on couples and families that have purchased RV's. They're paying $300, $800, even $2,000 a month, every month, winter and summer to use this thing that they thought was going to change their lives. Except that after a few trips, some part of the family kind of lost interest. Dad is still so excited, he gets away from work, can be in the outdoors, it's like a man cave on wheels. But Mom still has the same number of meals to cook, the same count of beds to make, and a lot more dirty feet tracking in. The kids figured out that after a couple of the "same" kind of trips, in their mind it's pretty much the same.
I took a quasi-stepson on tens of thousands of miles with me back in the 80s, all over the Southwest. For 99 percent of it he had the generator on, nose in front of the TV and playing Nintendo. Now we've driven those same roads together, he's a parent and a pretty with-it guy. We'll be driving along and he'll say, “Wow, look at that mountain!” Or that gorge or that bridge. I just sit and laugh. No less then 10 times when he was in his teens, I would tell him that something awesome to see is coming up, I would slow down, I would point it out and tell him some history about it, and he would glance up and go back to his game. Now we're there and he finds the sites incredible. Fast forward 30 years when most young people have smart phones, Ipads, and headphones. They long ago lost interest in Dad or Mom narrating an exciting trip. But now Dad can take them to the EGF State Recreation Area. He can play outdoorsman all he wants! Mom can go shopping, find eight choices to walk to for lunch, double that if she goes across the bridge. Cool shopping all around. The kids can spend the day at a 16-plex movie house. Weekends offer a farmers market and often activities in the downtown square in GF. And yet everyone can meet back at the RV for supper, or all meet at the Moose, or Whitey's, or any number of places. The kids love it, Mom loves it, and Dad has fulfilled his dream. All of a sudden that monthly motor home paying doesn't hurt so much, matter of fact it's the best family thing they've ever done.
East Grand Forks really hit the jackpot. I'm thinking it wasn't really thought out, it just happened that it was the perfect storm. Safety, outdoors, food, entertainment, adult beverages, a giant sporting goods store. It's got it all and I salute them! That is a DESTINATION.
Times: In order to maximize its success, if an RV park is inevitably going to be located somewhere in Crookston someday, where do you think it should go? Why?
Reitmeier: Because of current development there might not be a perfect place. But certainly I would consider ANY place within an easy walk from the Dairy Queen corner. Is there a spot big enough near Walmart, perfect, if not, then go out from there. How about right across the highway from the Hong's/Verizon store strip mall? It's UMC land, perhaps the city can work a trade for some of the land out by the new arena. And also something not often mentioned, it would be an easy walk to three churches of different faiths.
Times: Any further thoughts on the subject?
Reitmeier: I'm excited that there's discussion about this in our town. A great thing happened with the Castle Park event. I hope it can lead to bigger and better things for our community! These are my ideas drawn from my experiences. I'm sure there are other folks who have done a love of traveling...let's ask them. In a perfect situation we would have a place for workers in our community, reasonably priced and welcoming. We would also have a place for travelers in HEAVY coaches, campers, and even tents. Somewhere that they can tell their friends..."Hey, make sure you spend the night in Crookston!"