Wal-Mart's rising popularity as RV lot enrages campground owners

But drivers fight moves to curtail free parking


SHERIDAN, Wyo. - Frank Sharpski Jr. surveyed the Wal-Mart parking lot near his RV campground on a recent afternoon. "There are six of them today," he said, counting the rigs that he figured would not be spending any time or money at his campground that night. "And that's a slow night."

RV campground owners such as Sharpski, co-owner of the Big Horn Mountain KOA Kampground here, say they are increasingly feeling financial pain caused by the growing popularity of parking RVs at nationwide chains such as Wal-Mart. It is a debate pitting RV owners against RV campground operators that is played out on vast expanses of asphalt, a controversy fueled by rising gas prices and intensified by RV-oriented Internet chat sites.

RV camping, the nation's fastest-growing tourism segment, is expected to grow strongly as baby boomers retire. There are now 7 million RVs on the roads, and that number is expected to continue to grow, industry groups say.

Wal-Mart is not the only chain store allowing free overnight RV camping - Kmart, Costco and Flying J truck stops do as well - but Wal-Mart remains the most popular destination. Campgrounds charge $25 to $40 a night.

The growing number of RV owners looking for a place to spend the night has helped force the issue into the public debate in cities including Fairbanks, Alaska; Rapid City, S.D.; and Burlington, Wis. Prompted by complaints from campgrounds and others, several communities have decided to begin actively enforcing laws banning parking-lot camping.

In Sheridan, however, Sharpski's efforts to restrict the practice ran straight into the influence of Wal-Mart, he said.

"It was like banging my head against a wall," he said of a meeting last year with the Chamber of Commerce to encourage enforcement of existing parking restrictions. "They're not going to step on Wal-Mart's toes."

Sharpski did not get a warmer reception the other day from the RV campers at the Wal-Mart when he suggested that parking-lot camping should be banned.

"Would you shut down grocery stores if they were putting restaurants out of business?" a camper, Marvin Boehme, asked him.

Phyllis and Tom Force emerged from their 26-foot Flair RV to add their opinions.

"You wouldn't have to be out here if people liked your camp," Tom Force told Sharpski.

Phyllis Force was more practical.

"The other day I needed a haircut, so I went in and got one," she said. "Can't do that at a KOA."

Most Wal-Marts provide only space for the RVs to park, not electrical hookups or dumping stations. The company says its invitation to RVs, which has been in place for decades, is not predatory competition. "It is very simply an extension of customer service," said Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman.

Many RV owners agree, and Wal-Mart camping has drawn an enthusiastic following.

Many belong to Wal-Mart Bound International, an RV club whose only requirement for membership is having camped in at least five Wal-Mart parking lots. To help these so-called Wally Worlders find the nearest Wal-Mart, a couple from Carlsbad, Calif., published a book called Wal-Mart Locator.

Whenever restrictions loom, an RV owners group called the Escapees keeps its 35,000 members abreast of developments on its Web site, www.escapees.com, and by an e-mail newsletter. Communities considering a crackdown are often barraged with e-mail messages threatening a boycott by RV owners.

Chuck Woodbury, editor of freecampgrounds.com, believes that Wal-Mart has become the largest RV campground in the country. It is impossible to confirm that claim because Wal-Mart does not keep track of the number of RVs parking in its lots, but it would take only about three RVs a night at each of Wal-Mart's roughly 4,000 North American stores to surpass the industry's biggest campground chain, KOA, which has 450 locations in the United States and Canada.

The debate about Wal-Mart camping began as early as 1999, when the Escapees Web site excoriated supposedly restrictive camping policies by the Illinois Campground Owners Association and encouraged members to avoid any campground that belonged to the group.

"We got over 800 negative e-mails; it was really miserable," says Craig Weber, co-owner of the Geneseo Campground in Geneseo, Ill. His wife, Shari, led the campground owners association at the time. "There were threats saying they would come to our campgrounds, plug up our toilets and set our garbage Dumpsters on fire."

Lori Vavak, owner of the Double Dice RV Park in Elko, Nev., is fighting back in court. Vavak is suing the city of Elko for refusing to enforce an ordinance that bans overnight parking-lot camping. She is suing for $1 million, seeking reimbursement for lost business. She must comply with 37 rules to retain her campground license, she says, and believes that anyone offering camping should do the same.

"We are happy to compete with legal competition," Vavak said. "We cannot compete with free, illegal competition."

Weber of Wal-Mart said: "We are not a campground and haven't claimed to be."

In Billings, Mont., a crackdown on parking-lot camping began in July when complaints about the large numbers of RVs at the local Wal-Mart spurred the city into enforcing a 1960s-era parking ordinance. Complaints from the RV community have been swift.

"It's been a tempest," says Nicole Cromwell, the supervisor in charge of enforcing city codes. She said the city had received hundreds of protest e-mails, and the local paper had published a steady stream of letters about the conflict.

Ken Stellmacher, a spokesman for KOA, said his company would prefer to peacefully coexist: "We've extended an olive branch to Wal-Mart to see if we can find common ground."

It is unclear that any olive branch could resolve the issue, however, and so the battle continues. That is not likely to change anytime soon, said Woodbury of freecampgrounds. com.

"These people have a lot of time on their hands," he said of his readers.

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