Sure, there are real advantages to remote campsites in serene settings that require a traditional, almost ceremonial journey in the family car or camp bus to get to. A classic wilderness experience is truly unique.
It is only one tool -- one version of camping that is used to achieve the goal of building strong kids and strong families.
But it comes at a cost -- economic cost, time, and reduced market size due to customer concerns.
The Bright Side
Though some aesthetic may be lost in a camp being surrounded by development, there are many advantages. Protective parents are even more concerned about the safety of their children. That includes being able to retrieve them in a hurry in case of accident or illness, and proximity to emergency medical services.
Informed consumer parents want to be able to tour the camp before making their registration decision, and then want to personally meet the counselors and see the cabin where their child will be staying (as opposed to placing them on a bus in a parking lot for a long ride to a remote camp).
And these same time-strapped parents appreciate the timesaving in convenient locations, especially when they often have to schedule the activities of multiple children.
There are also human resource consequences of location. Remote campsites require a much larger percentage of the camp staff to be housed on-site. Summer staff expects a variety of time-off activities (movies, stores, restaurants, Laundromats, and so on) and a minimum of driving time. Proximity to good schools is important to recruiting good executive leadership, just as in any executive position.
The economic factors include reduced prices for building materials and fuel, free delivery of most supplies, more regular service and more competition in foodservice suppliers.
There are dozens of examples of camps that have successfully survived encroachment, and even found their opportunities and business increasing.
Arguably the most successful YMCA camp in the country is Camp Tecumseh YMCA outside of Lafayette Ind., where the camp fills completely 14 months in advance, even though a subdivision has gone up directly across from the camp's main entrance.
The proximity to population centers and ease of access has increased its use as an outdoor-education center serving tens of thousands of children annually on a 200-acre site, and sold-out weekends year-round for parent-child and family programs attracted by the quality of the staff and effectiveness of the program.
Possibly the most dramatic encroachment is that at the Charlotte YMCA's Camp Thunderbird, where strip development along one border of the camp placed golden arches and The Colonel's smiling face within view of the camp's athletic field and waterfront.
The camp's doom was predicted and a huge effort was staged to find a new location for the camp. That was 17 years ago. It turns out those fast food stops had no impact on the parents' satisfaction with the camp or the campers' return rate (other than maybe the huge number who have their "last meal" on the way to camp, or their "first meal" on the way home!).
Today, the camp still sells out all 400 spaces every session at one of the higher fees in YMCA camping. The location is a major factor in the success of the outdoor education program, as transportation is the largest single variable cost when schools choose a camp.
A very current example of the power of proximity is one of our newest camps, Sherman Lakes Outdoor Center in Augusta, Mich. Originally envisioned as a summer resident camp to serve the cities of Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, the business plan evolved to include a major regional day camp and a full-facility YMCA on the same site, all built at the same time.
The functions and facilities have complemented each other perfectly on the site, with the YMCA already being enlarged due to greater than anticipated membership (after just three years).
The day camp is at its capacity of 300 campers per day. The resident camp, also full each summer, is expanding its capacity for 2002.
All this is not to say that encroachment isn't an issue. All of the successful camps mentioned have taken a proactive stance in creating buffer-zones to protect the outdoor experience that is so important to YMCA camping.
Plantings of trees and shrubs along property borders and roads can provide adequate shields from negative views and noise. Positioning camp buildings so they "turn their backs" on built-up areas help to focus campers' attention on the beautiful areas of camp while also blocking views and noise.
Purchasing adjoining lands, or swapping blocks of land to create a more useful, protected campus, are common board priorities. In almost every case, a community would much prefer a camp and its undeveloped open space to the high civic demands of new homes and their resulting need for expanded services.
State agencies and conservation groups can be allies by orchestrating the purchase of a camp's development rights for unspoiled portions of the property. In return for a conservation easement that prevents conventional development on land used for wildlife, recreation or agriculture, the landowner (in this case, the camp) receives a cash payment that can be used for facility improvements and endowment.
Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at email@example.com.