by CHRIS ROGERS
Five parties are vying for the contract to manage the city of Winona’s Prairie Island Campground. In a few weeks, the City Council will decide who gets it.
For the past 23 years, the city has contracted with Russ Hoesley to run the city-owned Prairie Island Campground, offering Hoesley a portion of the campground’s revenue in exchange for managing it. This month, the city sought out proposals from anyone interested in managing the campground — including Hoesley. This past Wednesday was the deadline for those proposals. Now, city staff are reviewing five proposals from would-be campground managers, and staff plan to make a recommendation for the City Council to consider on February 5. In addition to opening up the management contract for competition, the city is considering making some changes to how the campground is run.
Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl was nearly the only speaker who was not applauded at a public input meeting earlier this month on the future management and operation of Prairie Island Campground. Many of the attendees were longtime campers who offered testimonials for Hoesley, urged the city to keep seasonal camping, and offered some ideas for how to improve the campground.
Seasonal camping — camping sites that are reserved for months at a time or for the entire campground season — is a longstanding tradition at Prairie Island Campground. The spots are coveted; many campers said they had been trying to secure seasonal spots for years, and Hoesley said there is enough demand to fill the entire campground with seasonal campers. Hoesley stated that last year, half of the campground electric sites were reserved for seasonal campers while half remained open to campers coming for shorter stays.
At previous meetings, Ubl has explained that the city is considering shortening the maximum length of seasonal camping — some campgrounds only allow seasonal campers to reserve sites from Memorial Day through Labor Day, he said — and reviewing the number of seasonal sites to ensure that campsites are available for people traveling through and for special events. However, despite rumors to the contrary, the city is not going to eliminate seasonal camping altogether or shorten the overall campground season, he has said. Ubl took a minute to reiterate that at the January 8 meeting.
“The city has no intent to change the season length. April 1 through November 1 is the season length that we want to continue to have at the campground. We know that fall camping is arguably the best time of year for camping. We don’t want that to go away,” Ubl stated. He explained that any changes to the seasonal camping season would not take place until 2019, and that seasonal campers will still have their sites this year. “I do want to clarify that we didn’t fire Russ. We met with Russ and let him know that we do want him to submit a [proposal],” he added.
“There are some indications that you want to remove the seasonal [campers],” seasonal camper Nancy Whetstone asserted at the public meeting. That is the city’s right, but it should think twice because seasonal campers are a steady source of revenue, she said. While seasonal campers pay less per night than short-term campers, their long-term stays help ensure the campground is never empty, Hoesley has explained. “There’s a reason for it,” camper Tony Stengle said of seasonal camping. “It’s because it generates revenue. I think the city of Winona needs to decide: are the [special events] you’re going to bring in worth it?”
Several longtime campers talked about how seasonal campers help keep order and create a sense of community at the campground. “We’re not just campers. We’re a family out there, and we really don’t want to lose it,” seasonal camper Karen Anderson stated.
“Probably one of the nicest, most welcoming faces we’ve met in Winona was Russ,” Stengle said. He was one of numerous people who praised the job Hoesley has done. Hoesley himself spoke about the challenges with providing security at the campground. “If we get rid of Russ, are we going to have squad cars out there every other hour?” asked camper Kent Grover.
If the city really wants to improve things at Prairie Island Campground, it could start by reinvesting the revenue the city earns from the campground back into campground facilities, several people said. The pit toilets at the campground need to be upgraded and replaced, campers reported. “They’re scary to be in,” Whetstone said. Others recommended better wifi access, improving the docks, providing a handicap-accessible dock, repairing Prairie Island Road, and building winterized cabins. Under pressure from Hoesley and campers, the city invested in some fixes last year: replacing plumbing and electrical facilities. That work is slated to wrap up this spring.
Ubl said his staff are also going to review how much the campground charges for sites and whether that should be raised, lowered, or changed. Asked at a previous meeting what sort of campgrounds his staff would compare Prairie Island Campground to, Ubl mentioned state parks and other municipal campgrounds. Several campers at the January 8 meeting encouraged the city to compare Prairie Island to campgrounds like Pla-Mor and Bass Camp that charge less and allow seasonal campers to keep their RVs at the campground year-round.
Noah Hauser and Nate Rislove had a number of new ideas for ways to improve and promote Prairie Island Campground. Prairie Island Campground is under-marketed, Hauser said. If there is more programming to bring people in, better advertising and promotion, more people would come to the park, he stated. “If you put a sign somewhere, people will go there,” Hauser said.
“A huge asset that is missing from Prairie Island is the Winona [State University] Outdoor Education and Recreation Center,” Rislove stated. Rislove is himself a graduate of Winona State’s recreation and tourism program, and there is a whole group of students with whom the campground could be partnering to provide hands-on education for them and free programming for the campground, he argued. The university’s outdoor recreation center already rents out snowshoes, skis, bikes, and kayaks, and the campground could do more to partner with the center to promote outdoor recreation at Prairie Island, he said.
Ubl and Mayor Mark Peterson thanked people for their input. Grover asked whether city staff would tell the City Council which proposal to accept or if the council would chose among options. Ubl said that the staff would make a recommendation, but the final decision was up to the council.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.