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Camping at Wal-Mart

Article by Jennifer Dempsey

Modern Life – August 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN 1962, when Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Arkansas, he vowed that the discount store would strive to meet the changing needs of American communities.

Wal-Mart’s mission statement says, “As we grow, we want to ensure that we do so in a way that aligns with the needs of our customers and communities.”

But controversy ensues over the mega-supercenter which has been named the “Number One Most Admired Company in America.” Are Wal-Mart stores aligning to community needs or creating them? Is Wal-Mart creating a culture in and of itself rather than enhancing the ones that already exist?

“Wal-Marts are the new reservations,” said Vernon Foster, a member of the Sioux Indian tribe who was on his way to Minnesota for a Sundance ceremony in early July. Traveling from Flagstaff, Arizona, Foster and his family of eight parked in the lot of Salida’s Wal-Mart on U.S. 50 while they waited for a mechanic to fix their RV.

“If you want to see your relatives you go to Wal-Mart,” Foster said. “We have a new one in our area and it is the place to shop.”

Foster and his family camped overnight at one of Salida’s RV parks, but noticed several campers parked in the Wal-Mart lot “by people who don’t want to pay for RV spaces.”

Will Irvine, 75, from Bullhead City, Arizona, had been parked in the lot for two days and said he planned on spending the summer in Salida. “Sam Walton wanted travelers to come and feel free to park,” said the former industrial designer. “He knew they’d buy things, plus he was a humanitarian. On maps all over the United States, there are Wal-Marts that allow camping … but some cities are creating laws that don’t allow it. I haven’t been bothered, but I don’t want to be too visible, so I sometimes park behind the Aquatic Center. They’ve never hassled me here, but they have Dennis.”

Dennis, a camper parked near Irvine’s RV, was jogging laps in the parking lot with his dog and stopped briefly to discuss his Wal-Mart strategy.

Camper in Wal-Mart parking lot
Camper in Wal-Mart parking lot

“I don’t ask, I just come and go,” said the rafting enthusiast from Rye, Colorado. “Some people take advantage, but I don’t stay long. I could park other places, but it’s convenient here. Some places in California and Colorado have city ordinances that won’t let you camp.”

According to Wal-Mart manager Ron Ertl, the city of Salida has no restrictions against campers parking in the lot and Ertl welcomes them.

“Ninety-nine percent [of campers] are very courteous and look after themselves,” he said. “Usually from late April through the first of October the parking lot is lined every morning. We’ve had less this year than in previous years. You can see the impact of high gas prices. But it seems to work well. They leave their major vehicle here and take their bikes around town. I’ve had no complaints recently from RV parks.”

JOAN SKINNER, owner of the Chalk Creek Campground and RV Park and former president of the Col- orado Campground and Lodging Association, discussed the pros and cons of Wal-Mart camping.

“I can understand one-nighters,” she said, “those people who have been driving all night and are tired and couldn’t go any farther and couldn’t find any other places availabIe. What we don’t understand is people who park and set up camp for several nights, or for six months. They have their awnings out, they walk their dogs there. I don’t think that’s right. Where are they dumping their waste? Dumping tanks at the back of Wal-Mart? That’s unsanitary. We don’t understand why the cities allow that. The county has a rule that says you cannot park and dump a tank just anywhere, but Wal-Mart is under city codes, so the county can’t say anything about it.”

Skinner said her business hasn’t been hurt by the Wal-Mart campers because “sometimes these are people who aren’t good for our campgrounds, if they don’t want to pay any money at all. We’ve just decided we’re not going to worry about it.”

Salida Chamber of Commerce director John Engelbrecht said he sees both sides of the Wal-Mart dilemma. “You know there’s a lot of people who rely on Wal-Mart for everything, and I mean everything,” he said. “I guess (camping in the parking lot) serves the needs of a clientele that is very cost-sensitive. At the same time it’s too bad that they are not able to enjoy our fabulous surrounding areas of natural beauty … the natural forests, babbling brooks, beautiful view of the mountains. Instead they’re on a parking lot that’s 275 degrees. Then again, these people go into Wal-Mart and buy coffee and have a social hour.”

DAVE POTTS, tour operator for Salida Mountain Sports Travel, said, “I don’t know how many of those folks are here to do the mountain experience or are just passing through. I guess Wal-Mart thinks they are doing a service by allowing people to camp in their parking lot, but I think campgrounds are needing the revenue. That’s always kind of bothered me.”

Deanna Richardson from Heart of the Rockies Campground said, “Every time I go into Wal-Mart I see the RVs and think $30.97, $30.97, $30.97, there’s goes another $30.97. But with gas and stuff I can see why they go to Wal-Mart. But we have several people in here now so it’s not really killing us. We have enough to pay the monthly bills.”

Laughing, she added, “RVers are a whole different breed of people. They want to scrimp and save every penny. I have RVers in the family and they say ‘that’s just the way we are, if we can get away with something free we will.’ I don’t really mind if they want to stay in the free place but they shouldn’t get mad when we charge them when they want to just come and dump.”

Margo Huff, owner of Arkansas River Rim Campground and RV Park in Buena Vista said, “We have no problem with people who park at Wal-Mart. Not at all. It doesn’t really take away our business. There are people who like to do that and people who like campgrounds.”

And, she added, Wal-Mart could be the answer to her retirement plans.

“My husband and I joke that when we retire we’ll go and stay at every Wal-Mart parking lot in America. Whenever we pass by a Wal-Mart there’s always a motor home and we tell our kids, yea, if you’re ever looking for us when we’re old, you’ll know where to find us,” she said, laughing.

Jennifer Dempsey is a free-lance writer based in Salida and a regular at Wal-Mart.