A camper at Camp Illahee, a summer camp for girls in Brevard, participates in some rock climbing. Photo courtesy of NCYCA.
Campers from Camp Illahee in Brevard smile for the camera. Photo courtesy of NCYCA.

Jane Murray went to Raleigh last week armed to the teeth, so to speak.

The executive director of the Black Mountain-based North Carolina Youth Camp Association, a year-and-a-half-old nonprofit that promotes and advocates for camps across the state, brought along a professional lobbyist, five camp directors and a box full of s’mores — that concoction of graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows.

The campfire treat was well-received by state legislators, Murray reported. “I thought it was cute and everything, but I had no idea how excited it would make them,” she said. “Their faces just lit up when they saw the s’mores. We didn’t come across anyone in the Capitol complex who didn’t have some camp experience in their own childhood, and this clearly sparked some memories.”

Jane Murray, executive director of the Buncombe County-based North Carolina Youth Camp Association. Photo courtesy of NCYCA.

Murray’s main purpose for the visit was to deliver an economic-impact study from the heart of Western North Carolina’s camp industry, with numbers that probably packed an even bigger punch than the s’mores. The study, commissioned by her association and conducted by leisure-business professors at N.C. State University, estimated that camps in just four Western North Carolina counties generated $365 million in local spending in the summer of 2010 and about $33 million in tax revenue.

Preliminary results from the study were released earlier this year and reported on by Carolina Public Press. For the first time since a similar study was conducted in 1999, the report quantifies the impact summer camps have in Western North Carolina. The full report offers a rare view into the finer points of the camp industry’s economic force, demographics and values.

Breaking down the data

The study focuses on 50 camps in four counties: Buncombe, Haywood, Jackson and Transylvania. It crunches the numbers based on extensive data gathered last summer, including surveys of 5,000 parents, most from out of state, who sent their children to the camps. Dozens of camp directors and more than 800 camp staffers also were surveyed.

According to the study, camps drew enormous sums — and the equivalent of 10,000 full-time jobs — to the area last summer. The data includes two categories of economic impact: direct impact, or money spent “within the four counties related to camp visits that otherwise would be spent outside the WNC economy, an amount estimated at $218 million; and indirect impact, defined as “the re-spending of these ‘direct’ dollars as they circulate through the local economy” and estimated at $147 million.

Highlights from the study include these findings:

  • Camps in the study spent an average of $1.5 million last year on operating expenses.
  • About 53,000 children attended the camps, with more than 49,000 of them visiting from outside the region. The vast majority of parents — 82 percent — drove their child to and from camp, with the average camper living about 500 miles from Western North Carolina.
  • Families spent an average of $2,096 on camp fees and other expenditures here, including lodging while traveling to and from camp, shopping, dining and vacation activities. Families stayed in Western North Carolina an average of four nights.
  • The camps’ 5,500 staff members — about 2,600 of whom are from outside the study area — spent an average of $2,400 each locally, as well.
  • The majority of the camps’ 2010 workforces encompassed staff members who were white (92 percent), female (69 percent) and young (72 percent were 16 to 29 years old). Ninety percent were seasonal employees, working an average of 10.5 weeks during the summer months. That said, 67 percent of the camps reported that they provide at least some form of off-season activities.

Campers from Camp Rockmont, a summer camp for boys in Black Mountain, practice canoeing. Photo courtesy of NCYCA.
Campers from Camp Rockmont, a summer camp for boys in Black Mountain, practice canoeing. Photo courtesy of NCYCA.

Recreation, enrichment and revenue

While the study was conducted in the state’s most camp-rich area, Murray said, there’s more youth camping going on from the mountains to the sea and its importance should be recognized in Raleigh.

“This study covered 50 camps in just four counties — and there more than 200 camps in North Carolina, so the statewide impact of camps has got to be enormous,” she said.

That’s a message she and others in the association are trying to impress on legislators. The study should help convey the summer camp sector’s role as an economic driver and help the camp lobby ask for some considerations — not money — at the General Assembly.

“We’re not a group that’s making appropriations requests,” Murray said. “What we want is for lawmakers, when they are reviewing legislation, to think about how it might impact camps — and, when appropriate, to grant us some exceptions.”

For example, state building-code regulations are making it more difficult for camps to maintain their traditional style of lodging. “Right now, it’s difficult to build a camp cabin that doesn’t look like a hotel room” because of state rules, said Adam Boyd, an association board member and the director of Camp Merri-Mac, a camp for girls in Black Mountain. “That changes the camp experience. Rustic is part of camping — rustic, comfortable and safe, you need all three. But you can’t run a rustic camp from a hotel room.”

Other key items on the association’s legislative agenda include protecting the summer-camp season from potential early school start dates in some counties and establishing more consistent rules regarding conservation easements, which the camps are generally supportive of but vary from county to county.

And then there’s the task of conveying the qualitative value of the camp industry, whatever the economic numbers show. Touting the camps’ role in uplifting children, be they from Western North Carolina or far away, is also high on the association’s list of priorities, Boyd said.

Some of the study’s surveys addressed that purpose. Asked to list the main ways camping benefits their children, parents offered these as the top three: fostering independence and self-sufficiency, improving self-confidence, and developing new skills.

“Our industry is a little unusual — we’re not merely an economic industry, we’re educators,” Boyd said. “Youth development is what we’re about. We see children grow and change as a result of camping.”

Read the North Carolina Youth Camp Association April 2011 Camp Study Summary.
Peruse the 85-page North Carolina Youth Camp Association April 2011 Camp Study Full Report.

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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