Everyone loves summer camp - especially area shop owners

Paul Clark

Peter and Beth Ballhaussen can depend on it – just about every Wednesday during summer, groups of area campers come in to Town Hardware to buy snacks, sodas and flashlights.

“Hundreds of them” come in over the course of summer, Peter said, usually in groups of five or six. “Several groups at a time, with their counselors,” he said. “It has a nice little midweek impact on our business. It probably raises our Wednesdays (revenue) 25-30 percent.”

Campers from Camp Crestridge play on Town Square on a recent Friday evening. Summer camps provide local merchants with a significant financial boost that helps during the slower winter months.

The camps and conference centers in the Black Mountain area have a significant impact on the Swannanoa Valley, businesses and camp administrators say. Montreat Conference Center, Ridgecrest Conference Center, Camp Dorothy Walls and Blue Ridge Assembly, as well as the half dozen summer camps in and around Black Mountain, rely on the town for goods, services and entertainment. It’s not unusual to see large groups of campers, many wearing identical camp T-shirts, laughing and talking on the downtown sidewalks before going in and out of shops.

Summer camps had a $365 million impact on Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson and Transylvania counties in 2010, according to a 2011 study that N.C. State University researchers did for the North Carolina Youth Camp Association. Camps in the four counties generated more than 10,000 jobs and netted North Carolina $33 million in tax revenue.

“Western North Carolina is the Silicon Valley of camping. There is a higher concentration of camps in WNC than anywhere else in the country,” said Adam Boyd, director of Camp Merri-Mac and Camp Timberlake in Black Mountain. “We have our own special sauce. We do ‘camping’ very well.”

And Black Mountain does very well by camping. The UPS Store here handles about 1,500 trunks for campers each summer, owner Mark Peddy said. The shop gets summer schedules from camps to help coordinate deliveries. It’s taken years to perfect the logistics of dropping off and picking up so many 90-pound trunks, Peddy said.

“Everybody pitches in, including myself and my 12-year-old and my 23-year-old,” he said. “The phone calls (from campers’ families) come in all week. I just lug the trunks. It's a paid workout.”

Dave Teske, owner of Kilwin’s Black Mountain, a popular ice cream and chocolate shop on West State Street, estimated that Kilwin’s sees a 50-60 percent boost in sales each summer because of campers. His is one of a handful of shops that benefit from groups of young campers walking around downtown on chaperoned time away from camp.

“When the Montreat (Conference Center) group comes in with 400 kids, each spending $1 to $20, you can do the math. It’s a huge shot in the arm,” Teske said.

Young conferees from Montreat Conference Center and their parents boost many Black Mountain business' bottom lines each summer.

It's not just the campers who spend money in town. Parents and grandparents dropping them off eat in local restaurants, stay in local hotels and consider local real estate, said Bob McMurray, executive director of the Black Mountain Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber doesn’t have numbers to quantify the summer bump in business. “But we know we have a lot of parents who stay the whole week” while their children are playing in the woods, McMurray said. “They shop and eat and make it their vacation. The (camp) counselors and staff members come into town in the evenings for entertainment. They’re here all summer and are looking for things to do.”

Campers account for a 20 percent spike in summer business at Sweet! On Cherry Street, co-owner Walt McDougald said. “Summertime has a huge impact on our business, I’d say triple from winter,” he said. “That’s just the way the candy and ice cream business is – when it’s warm and people are in town, that’s what they want to buy.”

This summer, Ridgecrest Conference Center and Camps will host more than 32,000 guests, volunteers and staff, as well as another 5,000-plus families dropping their campers off, executive director Art Snead said. "Many of our guests enjoy shopping and eating in the Black Mountain area during their visits with us, as well as buying fuel for their vehicles and other purchases," he said in an email. Ridgecrest buys "thousands of pizzas" from local restaurants, he said.

Montreat Conference Center’s residential programs will attract more than 7,000 people this summer, and many of them will visit Black Mountain at some point in their stay, said Tanner Pickett, the center’s vice president for sales, marketing and communication.

“Montreat does not have a commercial district aside from The Montreat Store, Ten Thousand Villages and the Huckleberry Café,” he said. “While these are great establishments, Black Mountain is really enticing to people visiting this area. Many groups have a tradition of going to places like Kilwin’s and My Father’s Pizza as part of their Montreat experience.”

Plus, they shop at BiLo and Ingle’s while they’re here, he said. Additionally, the center’s staff has lunch in town while it plans conferences, and it uses local vendors such as food trucks, musicians and bounce houses, Pickett said.

Many of the 1,000 people who attend summer conferences at Camp Dorothy Walls stay in motels in the Black Mountain area, Bishop George Battle Jr. said. They frequent local restaurants and shop in town. When the camp needs repairs, "our first choice is always Black Mountain," he said.

The staff members at Camp Merri-Mac and Camp Timberlake often run to Ingle’s to pick up brownie mix or hamburger for the six cooking classes they conduct for campers every day, Boyd said. They support local farmers by taking campers to the Black Mountain Farmers Market on Saturdays to buy produce to cook.

“But the missing piece that people don’t understand about camps is that tons and tons of our staff and campers come back here to go to Warren Wilson College, Montreat College or UNC Asheville,” Boyd said. “I can count dozens of people that live in this area because of their connections to area camps.”

“Black Mountain takes good care of its camps,” Boyd said. “The people of Black Mountain really appreciate their camps, and we appreciate that relationship.”