Bad economic climate worries Maine summer camp directors

Posted Feb. 17, 2009, at 9:32 p.m.

HOPE, Maine — Maine’s summer camps, like the one at Alford Lake, tend to look quiet this time of year.

But February should really be a busy month for camper enrollment — and the tough economic climate is slowing things down and making some camp directors worried about the summer.

“It is concerning to me,” Sue McMullan, the director of Alford Lake Camp, said Tuesday. “My guess is that people who aren’t committed or don’t have camping experience might think that camping is fluff. But it’s really part of the educational experience for kids.”

The global recession is making people think twice about how they spend their money. Industry experts said that the national belt-tightening, coupled with the 20-year trend of children not being as interested in camping, may have a detrimental effect on Maine’s nearly 200 licensed summer camps.

That would have an impact on the state’s overall economy. According to a 2005 study funded by the Children’s Camp Alliance of Maine, summer camping in the Pine Tree State pumps about $245 million a year into the economy, and supports about $25 million in tax revenue for Maine’s state and local governments.

“Camps are economic engines in their local communities,” said Mary Ellen Deschenes, a consultant for the Maine Youth Camping Foundation. “I would say that some camps are definitely at risk over the next couple of years. But so far, knock on wood, we haven’t heard from any camps which have said, ‘We’re done.’”

Christopher Price and his wife, Shelly, are directors of the Flying Moose Lodge in East Orland, which sends boys on summertime backpacking and canoeing adventures throughout the state. His family has run the rustic program since 1940, but Price sounded a bit worried as he discussed this summer’s enrollments, which are slower than usual.

“I’m feeling a little discouraged,” he said. “This is our prime time for getting [enrollments] in the mail. It’ll pick up, I hope. It’s an anxious time.”

Price said that running the camp is really a labor of love — with the intrinsic reward of watching computer-bound kids learn to appreciate nature — even when the economy isn’t as sour as it is right now.

“Some years we come home with some money. Some years we don’t. It’s a fact of life,” Price said. “The economy is going to hurt everything. We are definitely a luxury, not a necessity.”

Price and McMullan both said that they are working with parents to make what McMullan called “creative payment plans” for tuition. Tuition at the 102-year-old Alford Lake Camp starts at nearly $5,000 for 24 days, and tuition at Flying Moose Lodge starts at $3,200 for a 2½-week option that’s available only to first-time campers.

“We are very flexible with payment,” Price said. “We realize it’s a lot of money.”

Mount Desert Island’s Camp Beech Cliff is a day camp that charges less money than most sleepaway camps, with weekly tuition ranging from $175 to $225. Debra Deal, the director, said she has been wondering whether the recession might affect her camp differently, as cash-strapped parents might send their children to a more economical camping alternative.

“It’s incredible value for people’s money,” she said. “We believe that if employment holds steady in this area, we’ll be pretty booked-up.”

But she’s not sure. That’s the problem. With this climate, certainty is thin on the ground as directors plan for the summer. That’s why Deal has made not one but four versions of her summer budget, with each one geared to a different enrollment scenario. If she is forced to use the budget for the smallest enrollment, it will be challenging, Deal said. The camp’s free transportation might get crossed out, and that’s not all.

“We’d get really, really creative about doing programming for less money,” she said.

According to Deschenes, not every camp can cut programming. The higher-end, higher-cost camps likely wouldn’t be able to scale back as drastically as nonprofit camps could. “Because of the customer, you can only scale back so far,” Deschenes said.

Other camps, including the Acadia Institute of Oceanography in Seal Harbor, have reported a higher demand for scholarships.

“I can afford to give a few more scholarships,” said Sherry Gilmore, the camp’s owner-director. “But the economy’s bad. If my numbers are down a little, I might have to just be careful. You find ways to cut. Or, honestly, I’ll just make less money.”

For more information, visit www.mainecamps.org

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