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RV parks's business slows in downturn

Harold Polglaze says he has been pinching pennies since his wife died in 2005.

Now he lives in an RV at Cody's Catfish Pond RV Park in Weeki Wachee.

He's one of many who — even in a down economy — have kept business going in the area's campgrounds and recreational vehicle parks.

Their stories vary greatly. Some, like Polglaze, have left homeownership and are living frugally.

He saw his mortgage rise from $800 to $1,200 a month. When he couldn't make payments, he said, he gave his house back.

"I was quite worried that they would come after me," he said about the foreclosure.

Others are snowbirds who, despite shrinking retirement accounts, are determined to spend the winter the way they always have — in the Florida sunshine.

"I've lost a lot of money," said Indiana native Chester Little.

Little and his wife have been spending winters in Brooksville's Clover Leaf Forest for the past 10 years.

"The only thing that might have prevented us from coming was $4-a-gallon gas," he said. "If it's going to cost more, we do less."

Though some RV and campground residents have lost jobs or been hurt by plunging retirement funds, many were already living close to the bone.

RV residents Gayle and Jim Blandford packed up and moved from Pittsburgh to Weeki Wachee last fall.

She was a food service director at a local university; he was a truck driver. They had planned to make the change for a long time.

"We found this (park) at the last minute and came down here," Gayle said. "We've been happy ever since."

"We saved a lot," said Jim. "We're in the process of setting up a Web store."

Their business, dawghousecommodities.com, is just getting under way. They have learned Web design by doing a lot of reading.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "If all goes well, hopefully we can be self-employed and not have to worry about the job market."

The economy is tough, but local RV parks and campgrounds are holding their own.

"Business seems to be on track and where we were last year," said Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.

"They may still be coming, but they might not be spending as much in stores and on other activities," he added.

Repeat business has been particularly strong for some parks.

"We're full because all our Northerners are here," said Stormy Morse, manager at Camper's Holiday Travel Park on Culbreath Road south of Brooksville.

At the high-end Chassa Oaks RV Resort in Homosassa, sales initially seemed to hold steady when the housing market crashed.

"It's a unique market that isn't following the traditional real estate curve," Jim Eyster said in January.

But by late February, Eyster said, sales at the park were agonizingly slow. He had sold only two lots in the beginning of 2009.

Jim Trefz purchased Belle Parc in Brooksville a year ago. He aims to create a vacation resort, and increased rates to help pay for his improvements.

"My price went from $275 a month to $400," Trefz said. "I was about half filled during my first year with very little advertising."

Trefz said he had 97 new customers this season.

Jeff Guzlas, owner of Cody's Catfish Pond RV Park, decided to keep rates the same.

"I didn't raise my rates in two years, and I'm not raising them this year," he said.

But he has made other changes.

"I'm trying to go off the grid a little," said Guzlas. His park has a chicken coop to provide fresh eggs, and he recently planted a community garden.

He's working on a pet-friendly shelter and puts most of what the park makes back into it.

"RV parks just kind of go along," he said. "You have to eat and you have to live somewhere. If your house is foreclosed on, you can live here."

RV parks's business slows in downturn 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 12:00pm]
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