Anne Conway and Jamie Schell of Front Porch Management will be the new operators of Winona’s Prairie Island Campground.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona city staff recommended and the Winona City Council unanimously approved a proposal for a new manager for Prairie Island Campground. The city still needs to negotiate the details and sign a contract, but on Monday, the City Council accepted a proposal from Jamie Schell and Anne Conway of Front Porch Management to run the campground.
Russ Hoesley has operated the city-owned campground for the past 23 years and received a portion of its proceeds as compensation. For the first time in two decades, the city opened that contract to competition this winter, and invited Hoesley and other would-be campground managers to make proposals for the contract. City staff received five proposals last month, and on Monday, Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl presented one top pick to the City Council.
Earlier this winter, Ubl said the city was opening the contract to competition because city staff had realized it had been a long time since that had happened and because staff were interested in considering changes to pricing, seasonal camping, and programming at the campground. During Monday’s meeting, Ubl also mentioned a newly created staff position as part of the impetus for considering changes. “We’ve added staffing, with Ross [Greedy] in our department as the outdoor recreation coordinator. We feel there can be some more oversight in this area,” he said of the campground.
To explain why they ultimately recommended Front Porch Management, Ubl and his staff wrote, “Staff identified a strong vision for growth and collaboration with the Parks and Recreation Department, which aligns with the greater vision of Prairie Island.” The city staff members pointed to Schell and Conway’s clear plan for marketing and for implementing a new, digital reservation platform with tools to track camper information, as well as a simpler system for splitting campground revenues between the city and the campground management. “The proposal outlined a vision of growth, which affords the opportunity for the city to increase [its] share of revenue,” the city staff members wrote.
Front Porch’s proposal
“The campground really is the city’s front porch to the river,” Conway said in an interview. In their proposal, she and Schell wrote, “Our belief is that the entire Prairie Island Park facility will thrive from our passion for outdoor recreation, the arts, local music festivals, place-based education, and environmentally responsible land management.”
Schell is a Rollingstone native, and an acclaimed local woodworker. His work has been featured at the Winona County History Center as part of “The Art of Fine Furniture” shows, and he has helped with the planning and production of Boats and Bluegrass music festival at Prairie Island Campground, Winona’s annual Family Art Day, and the former Live at the Levee concert series. He currently serves as the board chair for Visit Winona. In his proposal, Schell pointed out that he had grown up going to a seasonal camping site at Bass Camp Resort, and that he has experience in a range of trades.
Anne Conway has worked as an arborist and landscaper, a Spanish teacher at Cotter Schools, and a literacy specialist at Saint Mary’s University. She pointed in particular to experience building cabins, trails, and campgrounds on a U.S. Forest Service crew in Alaska.
Under Front Porch Management’s proposed staffing plan, Schell would live onsite and work full-time, Conway would work as needed on programming, bookkeeping and special projects; Front Porch Management would hire one part-time employee and recruit one or two volunteer campground hosts to assist other campers after hours; and two city employees would spend 20 hours per week on campground maintenance.
Schell and Conway described numerous ideas for new programming at the campground, including partnering with local businesses and organizations to offer fishing gear, bike, boat, and standup paddle board rentals at the campground. They said they would partner with festivals such as Boats and Bluegrass and with new special events. “We recognize the opportunities in supporting the success of such events,” they wrote.
In their proposed compensation plan, Schell and Conway asked for 27 percent of all campsite rental sales, 50 percent of all dumping fees, and all the proceeds from concessions and equipment rentals.
Some long-time campers upset
Sonny Fenstermaker steamed after Monday’s meeting. He has been a seasonal camper at Prairie Island for years, and he was one of many long-time campers who gave testimonials for Hoesley at a public input meeting last month. Hoesley went the extra mile for people, Fenstermaker said. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, he stated.
While Ubl has repeatedly stated that the city does not want to get rid of seasonal camping altogether, he also has not stated exactly what changes might be made — just that the city wants to consider changes. Many long-time seasonal campers are worried. Amy Peterson said that while they know they will still have their campsite for the 2018 season, she wondered whether seasonal camping would be disallowed or cut back in 2019. Amy’s husband, Tim Peterson, has been camping at Prairie Island since he was eight years old. “I don’t think the way they’re doing it will be good,” he said.
Fenstermaker, the Petersons, and long-time camper Dave Dickson all praised Hoesley’s dedication, and pointed to the revenue he generated for the city. “They’re going to lose money,” Amy Peterson said. On the other hand, she added, “We’re not saying someone else might not do that same stuff.”
“The only difference is, they don’t know us yet,” Schell said. “We’re really excited to dive in and meet the seasonal folks and start building those relationships,” he added. “We see them as ambassadors for the campground.”
Thurley explains his decision
Al Thurley was the only council member who asked city staff members about their decision to select Front Porch Management and who shared his own opinion during the meeting. “I’m excited about this. I think it’ll help our community, but I also wish to thank our previous operator for his dedication, his family’s dedication to our campground for making it what it is,” Thurley said. Asked about his decision to accept Front Porch Management’s proposal in an interview, he explained, “I basically think it offered more for the city, more for the visitors of Winona.” He reiterated his appreciation for Hoesley.
Were there certain things that made this proposal more attractive? Thurley said he could not point to specific items. “If I look at that proposal, I’m seeing more of those positive vibrations … My overall impression was that this could enhance the camping experience and enhance the presentation of the city.”
Were there problems that convinced Thurley that a change of management should be considered? “No,” he responded. “When Russ took over, he brought the campground to the next level from the pervious operator, and it’s just time for that next step.”
City staff expect to negotiate and prepare a final contract for the council to approve on February 19. One of the main questions will be how long the contract should last. Given the investment the new managers will be making, council members suggested three to five years.