WINCHESTER BAY — The story of Douglas County government is, in many cases, one of steadily shrinking services — departments closed Fridays, a library system handed off to cities and volunteers.
The county Parks Department, however, is another story. It’s become financially self-sufficient and increasingly businesslike in recent years, and nowhere is that more evident than at Winchester Bay. Visit there with your RV, and there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself staying at a campground that’s either owned or partly owned by the county.
Now the county is in negotiations over a possible purchase of Discovery Point RV Park, a privately-owned park that primarily serves off-highway vehicle riders. County officials say it would be a positive addition to the parks system, one that will bring in money to the county coffers. Detractors say the property has been on the market for years, and if it was a great investment, a private buyer would have snatched it up.
Discovery Point offers easy dune access, 80 RV sites and a handful of trailers and cabins to rent. It’s not as pretty as the county’s neighboring Half Moon Bay Campground, but it provides full hookup spots that Half Moon doesn’t. And it offers the direct beach access that OHVers demand. Discovery Point might be described as a fixer upper. Customers reviewing the campground on the website Yelp praise the proximity to the dunes, but describe the park as “a bit run down” and “ruff around the edges.”
A Discovery Point purchase could be funded with a mixture of parks department and general fund dollars, offset by sale of undeveloped parks the county has labeled surplus. The county could also put a $650,000 grant it received from Oregon Parks and Recreation toward the purchase price.
There’s no deal yet, but negotiations are underway with the owners.
The debate over Discovery Point can’t be separated from the overall financial picture of the county. Whether it’s a good investment, or a bad one, is an important question in a time when the county’s general fund is rapidly disappearing due to the loss of federal timber revenue historically shared with the county.
From time to time, someone suggests that tourism could be the answer. Generally, county commissioners have reacted by pointing out that while new tourism jobs would be great, those jobs don’t translate into tax dollars to fill the county’s gaping budget hole.
But there is one way the county can generate income from tourists, and that’s through camping fees at its parks. That’s why the county’s been steadily growing its coastal presence in recent years through investing in RV camping spots.
As Commissioner Chris Boice puts it, “The only way for county government to capitalize on the tourism industry is if we’re in the tourism business.”
The county plans an $850,000 expansion of its Half Moon Bay Campground. Improvements have been made to the county’s two Windy Cove parks, and the Parks Master Plan approved last year suggests creating an RV campground or yurts and cabins at the Coastal Visitor Center near the Umpqua River Lighthouse.
The county has also invested in RV camping at Salmon Harbor, which is a joint project of the county and the Port of Umpqua, and the Winchester Bay RV Resort, sometimes described as the “Cadillac” of RV resorts along the coast. That resort belongs to the port, the county, and Salmon Harbor. The county hopes to expand camping at the Winchester resort and pour its share of the camping fees into the general fund.
Then there’s Discovery Point. Owners Greg and Simi Hoover have had the RV park on the market for several years, and it is currently listed on rvparkstore.com with an asking price of more than $2.6 million. The Hoovers also own some adjacent condos the county isn’t interested in buying.
The Douglas County Assessor’s Office suggests Discovery Point’s real market value is $1.5 million. The Parks Department obtained an appraisal, but is withholding the figures. Oregon public records law allows governments to do that while negotiations are underway to protect their bargaining position. The Parks Department budget has $1.5 million designated for land purchase, but it’s unclear whether that’s more or less than what it would need for Discovery Point.
Parks Director Rocky Houston estimates the county would make back the money spent on Discovery Point in between five and 12 years, depending how much the county pays for it.
County officials first began talking with the Hoovers about a possible purchase in January 2017. A couple months before that, Greg Hoover appeared at a Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting to complain that the county’s success with RV camping at the coast was hurting his business. He said when Half Moon Bay Campground was built, it profited $100,000 and his business suffered a $100,000 loss. He said if the county expanded, it would make things worse for him. And he suggested the county purchase Discovery Point.
At a Feb. 3 commissioners’ meeting, Houston said he’d like to apply for a state grant to help purchase Discovery Point, and the commissioners gave the go ahead to get the property appraised and to pursue opportunities to acquire the land.
Houston prepared a feasibility study and found Discovery Point isn’t losing money. It’s making a profit. He shared the feasibility study with The News-Review, redacted to exclude appraisal information.
The study, completed in May, also describes a solid market for the service Discovery Point provides to OHV tourists.
Winchester Bay is the number one place for OHV recreation in the state, Houston said. During the summer months, there are more RV campers than spaces for them to camp.
About 12,000 visitors stay at Discovery Point each year. Averaging three estimates of what those visitors spend, Houston arrives at an estimated $6.4 million annual impact on the local economy.
At its May meeting, after reviewing the feasibility study, the parks board voted 4 to 1 in favor of pursuing the project. There was some push back from regulars who attend the parks meetings. They were concerned about what seemed like an end run around the recently completed Parks Master Plan, which made no mention of acquiring an RV park, and about whether the facility had sewer and water problems. They questioned whether the investment was a good one.
One of those who voiced concern about the project is retired Roseburg attorney Diana Wales, who is currently a candidate for an opening on the parks board. Wales still isn’t convinced it’s a good idea for the county to buy Discovery Point.
Wales said the idea didn’t make sense to her because the Parks Department had just been talking about not having enough money for deferred maintenance, and then it was talking about spending “great gobs of money” to purchase a private RV park.
Wales also thought it was strange that the property had been on the market for several years but was being viewed as a good investment opportunity.
“If it’s a really good deal, and such an amazing going concern, why hasn’t somebody else bought it?” she asked.
Wales also said the arguments she recalled were that the county was worried the park would close if it didn’t buy it, but that it would make money for the county if it did buy it.
“Both of those things can’t be true,” she said.
Boice said the county is interested in the property not because the owners complained, but because it’s expected to be a moneymaker. He said the coastal campgrounds owned by the county are all full during peak camping season, and Discovery Point is also. And the county would be in a different financial position than the Hoovers, he said. The county wouldn’t face the same debt load or interest rates, and the purchase price would get paid off reasonably quickly because of the state grant, he said.
“The county is not interested in bailing anyone out. If the purchase makes sense we will pursue it. If it does not, we won’t,” Boice said.
Some opponents of the project have suggested taking the RV park out of private ownership would cost the county taxes. However, the park’s tax payment each year is just about $14,000, with only about one tenth of that going to the county. The county expects to generate more income from RV camping than it could from taxes.
Other taxing districts such as schools, fire and the local hospital district would lose some money, though Boice said the lost school taxes would be replaced by the state.
The park doesn’t have water or sewer problems, according to the county, but it will need some work.
The feasibility study showed that a mobile home park on site would need to be closed over a one-year period, and that older trailers rented to campers would need to be removed. Siding and roofing would need to be replaced on some buildings and electrical upgrades are needed for the RV sites.
“It is operational as is, but there is deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed in the short-term and some longer term improvements that would generate a better user experience and more utilization of the site,” Houston said.
The debate over Discovery Point is part of a larger shift in perspective. The county appears to have little interest in undeveloped parks, and is putting its energy toward the highly developed campgrounds that can generate income.
After state grants, surplus property sales and day use parking fees, the county’s existing campgrounds at Half Moon Bay and Windy Cove are the fourth and fifth biggest sources of revenue in the county parks budget. They’re part of the reason the parks department has become self-supporting. Salmon Harbor is also self-supporting and has its own separate fund.
Boice said he’d ultimately like to use increased RV camping revenue to reduce or eliminate day use parking fees. County Chief Financial Officer Jessica Hansen said the commissioners could also choose to use the money as a source of revenue for the county’s general fund.
It’s not all about the money, though. Houston said a shift toward RV parks like Discovery Point is also a way to meet the county’s recreational needs.
“It is wise to identify the properties that will meet these needs and reduce the inventory of those that will not,” he said.