N.C. youth camps band together, touting economic impact and seeking influence in Raleigh

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Long a haven for popular children’s camps, Western North Carolina is now home base for a statewide trade association that seeks to give the camp business a voice in the N.C. General Assembly. The group argues that state laws already on the books — and a slew of newly proposed ones — could shape the future of North Carolina’s 175 camps at a crucial time.

So far, 40 of the state’s 175 camps have joined the nonprofit, year-old North Carolina Youth Camp Association. The Black Mountain-based organization is working to market the camps to prospective customers while forging a campaign to sway state legislation on issues ranging from school calendars and building standards to food-safety and land-use regulations.

Its annual budget, roughly $46,000 for 2011, is derived from dues, donors and grants.

The association formed after a late 2009 meeting between local camp owners and the area’s state-legislative delegation. Republican state Rep. Chuck McGrady, of Hendersonville, a camp director for 20 years who was then serving as a Henderson County commissioner, expressed concerns at that meeting about state regulations that can make camps harder and more expensive to run.

The legislators responded by telling camp owners, he recalled: “You’ve got a good story to tell with these issues, but we don’t know who you are. You need someone communicating your issues to us in the General Assembly on a regular basis.”

McGrady would become the association’s first executive director, serving for a year before passing the torch to Jane Murray, who owns a marketing company in Black Mountain and formerly worked as a counselor at Camp Ton-A-Wandah, in Hendersonville.

While most of the initial member camps were based in Western North Carolina, Murray said the association recently picked up a number from points east.

“This represents our first major expansion toward the coast,” she said. “While it was logical for our association to begin its grassroots work in Western North Carolina, where there is such a high concentration of organized summer camps, it’s crucial that we expand in order to live into our mission to represent the entire state.”

Report: camps generate $365 million economic impact

As the association builds its membership and wades into legislative debates, it’s brandishing newly collected data that suggests how camps pump money into the state’s economy. Last year, two recreation-business professors at N.C. State University conducted a study for the association, measuring economic impacts in a camp-rich part of Western North Carolina.

Only basic information about the study — which gathered information from 50 youth summer camps in Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson and Transylvania counties — has been released. The full study will likely go public in a couple of weeks, Murray said.

A summary issued in January reported that within the past year nearly 50,000 families visited the study area specifically for camp, staying an average of four nights in hotels and motels and spending an average of $2,100 each during their visit and their children’s camp experience. All told, the four counties’ camps generated an estimated $365 million in direct and indirect spending by camps, campers, staffers and visiting parents.

(Click here to read that summary, along with a newly released county-by-county breakdown. Only one of Jackson County’s camps responded to the study survey, leaving the county’s figures substantially lower than those of the other three.)

Camps hire lobbyist, develop legislative agenda

Page Lemel, director of Brevard’s Keystone Camp for girls, is vice president of the NC Youth Camp Association's board of directors and heads its legislative affairs committee. Photo courtesy of Keystone Camp

Armed with that information, the association is urging member camps to share it with their legislators and impress upon them the camps’ role as an economic driver. What’s more, the association has formed a legislative affairs committee.

Page Lemel, director of Brevard’s Keystone Camp for girls, is vice president of the NC Youth Camp Association’s board of directors and heads its legislative affairs committee. She said the move to organize camp owners and focus attention on relevant state laws is long overdue.

“Summer camps operated in this idyllic situation, in our own little world, for a long time,” Lemel said. But in recent years, she said, a host of state laws have crept up on camps. “Now, we’ve started looking at what’s been happening over all those years while we were minding our own business, and we realize that we’ve missed some opportunities to identify ourselves as a unique industry that brings a lot to the state.”

The association’s legislative goals include: ensuring that public-school start dates don’t shift any earlier into August, which could pull potential campers out of the end of camp season and into class; stripping back what the association views as unreasonable health- and building-code regulations that hold camps to the same standards as food-service and lodging businesses; opposing any new proposal that lodging-tax regulations include summer camps; and backing various initiatives supporting conservation easements and land trusts.

Many of the objectives address camp owners’ longstanding concerns, but with the new Republican majority in the General Assembly, some fresh issues are coming to the fore. Most recently, Lemel said, she’s paid the closest attention to House Bill 63, which is backed by gun-rights advocates and would require most North Carolina businesses to allow employees to keep firearms in their locked vehicle on company grounds.

“To be told, as a business owner with children on my property, that I have to permit loaded firearms being kept on my property but outside of my control, is petrifying,” she says. “You know, we won’t allow guns in cars on school grounds, so why would we allow them at summer camps?”

As it crystallizes its agenda, the association is working to make its voice heard.

“Right now, we’re encouraging all of our member camps, and all camps, to contact their legislators and tell them what’s important to us and why,” Lemel said. The association also recently hired veteran lobbyist Ken Melton to press its concerns., she said. And, Lemel said, “we already have a friend in Raleigh.”

That “friend” is McGrady, who’s now a freshman Republican legislator in the state House of Representatives and no longer works for the camp assocation. McGrady sits on five legislative committees, including ones covering the judiciary and the environment, which are likely to touch on proposed laws this session that could impact camps.

“Camps can be and are affected by things that occur here (in the General Assembly) — sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes in ways that can catch us off guard,” he said.

And while it’s too soon to tell how the association’s lobbying push will fare, McGrady said, “camps have come to recognize that they need to keep an eye on — and a finger in — public policy debates.”

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more on the findings on the economic-impact study as it becomes available. Visit the NCYCA website for a directory of member camps.


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About the Author

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the Investigations and Open Government Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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