Chatham County’s Leading Campground Just Happens to Sit on Tybee

Category: Hospitality & Tourism

SBJ Staff Report

10/26/2009 - Google “camping in Chatham County Georgia” and you’ll get a response of River’s End Campground on Tybee Island at the top of the search list. 

The site is a major asset for the county as an aid to tourism, similar to Tybee’s beach.  In fact, the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors’ Bureau has run a campaign for a number of years headlined, “Tybee Island, Savannah’s beach.”  The campground is a similar regional asset – and it’s a popular destination.

A search of various travel sites finds numerous postings by visitors that love the campground’s location so close to both the beach and the City of Savannah, and high praise for the campground’s staff. But there are also endless posts about overcrowded bathrooms and showers, with visitors standing in lines of 25 people at the height of the season or on big weekends at Tybee for….well…you know.

When the campground came up for sale a few years ago and developer Bobby Chu bought it up, city fathers panicked, some would say, and immediately bought the campground from him within days, rendering an instant multi-million dollar profit for Chu. There was widespread concern at the time that he would put homes or condos on the land.

Chu bought it on a Tuesday, reportedly for $4.5million, and sold it on Friday to the city for $7 million. Included in the deal were two other small lots on Tybee that Chu owned, though they were not valued anywhere close to the $2.5 million difference, according to tax records.
The City of Tybee has been trying to run the campground out of its small municipal budget, despite no one on staff with campground management expertise.

At the time of vote, virtually no discussion took place regarding capital improvement needs for general maintenance or expansion and improvements, nor was their time for the development of a professional operating plan.

The campground is now a political football in the upcoming Tybee City Council elections with both current council members and some challengers questioning whether it will ever make a profit, despite growing occupancy levels. 

Campground Manager Woody Hemphill, who has run the facility since August 2006, is proud of what has been accomplished and frustrated that some of the politicos do not understand the improving numbers of the operation – despite the lack of cash infusion.

Hemphill runs the campground year-round, keeping a close eye on his operating revenues and expenses.  The campground makes about $20,000 a year in interest payments to the citys’ Finance Fund for the borrowing that took place to buy the property. 

For fiscal year 2008-2009, which ended June 30, 2009, the campground lost $170,000, but it was a dramatic improvement over the prior year.  “We were up 23 percent in visits for the calendar year,” he said.

River’s End must set it rates based on  the prices of other campgrounds along the South Carolina and Florida coasts, frequented by tourists, and offers summer and winter packages for four to five days and weekend rates.

“We have come down on our monthly rates for ‘snowbirds,’ said Hemphill, to attract more customers. “We’re trying to price ourselves down to campgrounds on Hilton Head and in Beaufort County, but we don’t have that kind of ability,” he added, due to budget constraints.

“Starting in June 2008, the beach renewal really set us back while it was gong on.  The snowbirds saw the pipe and said, ‘We’re out of here.’”  But since it was completed in the Spring of 2009, customer numbers and revenues are rapidly climbing.  He is optimistic that the campground is on track to break even this year, though that brings another problem.

“The more successful we are, the better our  marketing, the madder our hotels get,” said Hemphill, which may be part of the political rhetoric in the current campaign, as some of the candidates are getting pressure from hotel owners.

The economy has also affected the campground, of course. “During the winter, our lengths of stay are generally longer, but we really didn’t see that last winter,” he said, which he believes should be factored in  by the city’s leadership as they analyze the campgrounds business proforma.
May 2009 revenue was $100,000; June 2009 hit $120,249; and July 2009 hit $140,000    with 80 percent occupancy during the week, and 95-99 percent occupancy on the weekend.

“We definitely are setting records every month now,” he states.  In April, the campground did a whopping $110,000.

The city borrowed from the general fund this past year to cover the operating shortfall, which Hemphill understands.  But visitors spend money on Tybee and across the county.  

According to Hemphill, the operating revenues now exceed the operating expenses, even in this down economy, when the interest payments are not included.  It’s a valuable asset of the city, and he questions why this isn’t better understood.

Included in his financial analysis are all personnel costs (the city is tax exempt and pays no payroll taxes); supplies and utilities; services; contractual labor; and paying the City of Tybee for the water and sewer bill and trash collection bills to service the campground.  It’s a “fully-loaded” P&L.

The 2009-2010 budget includes revenue of $1,036.268. “I would definitely have to say it will be a challenge. I really don’t know what the market will bear this year.  Is it attainable? Yes, but it’s a stretch in this economy.”

He also asks whether the mortgage/note has been renegotiated, and what interest rate the city is paying on the note.

But there also  needs to be a capital investment by Tybee, or the county.  “Our two biggest feedbacks that we get are our electrical needs to be upgraded and we don’t have enough bathrooms, which we don’t,” he states. “We have 140 sites and we have nine bathrooms.  That many sites can handle 250 to 300 people. They get mad, and when they’re standing in line at 1 and 2 in the morning to take a shower to beat the line, it’s a real problem.  Whether you’re peeing, showing or shaving, you stand in that line.”  

“We pretty much didn’t submit a capital plan this year because of the pressure ‘from the other side,’” he says. 

Current city councilors Dick Smith, Charlie Brewer and Barry Brown have been against the campground, said Hemphill. 

He laid off one full-time staffer, and another resigned. Another employee was cut back to part-time seasonal to trim the budget.  

“The level of expectation kind of goes exorbitantly high; people from all over the world come here. They want the red carpet experience,” when visiting Tybee, he believes, and the staff is working hard to keep the visitors happy.

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