July 23, 2013

Central Maine's summer camps a getaway for the well-to-do

Out-of-staters, many with considerable means, pay five figures for summer sessions and fly in to Maine on private jets to visit their kids.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Since 2001, Lisa Smukler has traveled to central Maine to take her daughters to Camp Vega, a girls-only summer camp in Fayette.

click image to enlarge

A pilot walks past two private jets July 16 near Maine Instrument Flight at the Augusta State Airport. Maine Instrument Flight owner William Perry said more jets are arriving earlier to visit summer campers than previous years. "It's not a weekend anymore," Perry said of the arrival of dozens of private planes in Augusta, which his company services. He expects several dozen flights this weekend.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

CAMP COSTS

Camp Location Tuition Dates
Camp Laurel Readfield $11,000 June 22 – Aug. 10
Camp Modin Belgrade $10,650 June 26 – Aug. 15
Camp All-Star Kents Hill $6,999 June 23 – Aug. 3
Camp Winnebago Fayette $11,550 June 21 – Aug. 12
Camp Vega Fayette $11,000 June 22 – Aug. 10
Camp Manitou Belgrade $11,300 June 26 – Aug. 14
Pine Island Camp For Boys Belgrade Lakes $7,550 June 28 – Aug. 11
Camp Runoia Belgrade Lakes $8,200 June 27 – Aug. 14

Source: Camp websites

Maine summer camps have long been a prime getaway from suburban life for out-of-staters, many with considerable means.

"You just go to camp in Maine. It's what you do," said Smukler, an attorney from Princeton, N.J., whose 11-year-old daughter is attending Camp Vega. "The girls have so much fun."

And if you were below the flight paths of Kennebec County airports over the past two weekends, you heard more parents — some from places like New York's affluent Westchester County and Manhattan — coming to camp-heavy central Maine to visit their children.

Area summer camps, especially those in the county's western lake region, held visiting days for parents the past two weekends, and local airports were gearing up to handle the additional traffic.

It's mostly made up of affluent out-of-staters, many of whom are shelling out more than $10,000 for their children to attend a seven-week camp session.

Many drive, but in recent years, the growing trend of attention-grabbing private planes flooding usually sleepy small airports have made locals pay more heed to camp weekends.

The big-money flying trend caught the eye of The New York Times in 2011, when the newspaper came to Maine to document wealthy parents who eschewed driving to fly themselves and their children to Maine in private jets and on chartered flights for convenience.

Bill Perry, owner of Maine Instrument Flight, which operates at the Augusta State Airport, said 70 jets passed through the airport between July 15 and Monday, this past Sunday being the busiest day.

Randy Marshall Jr., manager of Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport in Waterville, said over the past two weekends and on Monday, 30 jets passed through his airport.

However, every one of those may not be camp-related. Planes landing at the airports don't have to tell the airports they're coming, Perry and Marshall said. But when they do, the airport does its best to fuel and service the planes and help visitors with travel arrangements.

"We usually don't ask too many questions and they like that," Marshall said. "Time is money, and that's why they're flying a jet."

But summer camps aren't just a boon to those in the flying business.

'Fancy automobiles'

A 2012 study by the Maine Youth Camping Foundation and the American Camp Association, using 2010 data, said the state's 330 summer camps support $332 million in annual sales, sustaining more than 6,700 jobs providing almost $119 million in income.

The study included the camps' operations and spending from the approximately 45,000 annual visitors to the state associated with camps. Each year, area businesses feel the impact.

Peter Thompson, the CEO of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, sees it each year the form of "fancy automobiles" with out-of-state license plates on the roads near his home in Readfield, where Camp Laurel, a co-ed camp costing $11,000 for a seven-week session, lies on Echo Lake.

Thompson said the camps cast a wide net of economic benefits for area businesses: Not only do the parents visit, often a few times per summer, camps create jobs for counselors who also fuel the economy by shopping and hitting local nightspots.

"The folks that are attracted to these little resorts on the lake tend to have means and education," Thompson said. "They're a good leverage device, if you will."

Look at the Smuklers' footprint, for example: As a child, Lisa Smukler's husband, Andy, attended Camp Takajo, on Long Lake in Naples. Their son, now in college, went there too. Another college-aged daughter attended Camp Vega.

(Continued on page 2)

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