DENNIS TOWNSHIP — Pine Haven Camping Resort was abuzz with activity on a spring weekday as workers got the sprawling campground ready for thousands of seasonal residents.
Near the entrance, workers were repairing the irrigation system for the aquamarine spring-fed swimming lake. Elsewhere, crews were installing new playground equipment next to construction of a second swimming pool.
In the general store, employee Jennifer Collins, of Dennis Township, and Office Manager Rachel Curtin, of Upper Township, were busy stocking bare shelves with T-shirts, food and sundries.
The campground is home to as many as 3,500 people on a busy holiday weekend — families that occupy its 616 park-model trailers and 40 cabins.
“We’ve had campers coming here for 40 years. That says a lot about the quality of the resort,” Manager Terry Jordan said.
He and his wife, Dianna, live at the campground. She works as the director of activities in the summer and focuses on sales and marketing the rest of the time.
Campgrounds represent a significant draw for New Jersey’s tourism economy. But because most are gated, self-contained communities, they do not get as much public attention as island resorts.
Collectively, they pack a punch.
Cape May County is home to about 12,000 of the state’s 27,000 privately owned campsites, according to the New Jersey Campground Owners Association. The county has 34 of the 101 campgrounds the group represents, said spokeswoman Joanne DelVescio, of Upper Township. Atlantic County has 16 more.
Their visitors are a major driver for the state’s economy, she said.
“They are on the boardwalks. They’re at the beaches. (A man at) one pizza place on Route 9 in Cape May County said he probably makes 50 to 60 runs per night to the campground,” she said.
Campgrounds might conjure tent poles and campfire s’mores, but these complexes have all the amenities of home. DelVescio said there is even a word for this kind of camping with style — “glam-ping.”
Pine Haven recently installed new two-bedroom cabins that were built by Amish carpenters in Lancaster, Pa., and shipped on flatbeds to the site. They have hardwood floors and cabinets, a children’s loft and amenities such as flat-screen televisions and full kitchens that look like something out of Architectural Digest.
“You can be as connected or unconnected as you want to be,” DelVescio said. “You can have all the resort amenities around you. But if you just want to sit under the trees by a campfire you can do that, too.”
Pine Haven is one of the bigger campgrounds in South Jersey — 85 acres of woods and lakes off Route 9 in Ocean View.
The season runs from April to mid-October, when the campground’s six full-time employees are joined by nearly 30 seasonal ones.
The campground in many ways is a self-contained community with its own grill, camp store, recreation areas for volleyball, basketball and horseshoes, and a community center where residents play bingo.
“It’s old-style Americana. But we have WiFi and cable television,” Jordan said. “When people come here they don’t have to fight the traffic. They can just relax.”
Families who stay year after year at campgrounds are as loyal to their summer traditions as families that rent a condo for a week every summer at the shore, Jordan said. Children who spent their summers fishing for bass at the stocked lake return to the campgrounds as adults with their own families.
Jordan, a North Carolina native who formerly managed a Texas dude ranch, brought a western sensibility to his role. He wears a cowboy hat and jeans and speaks in a Carolina-Texas drawl.
Around here, Jordan is the law. It’s his job to address noise complaints or mediate disputes between campers and, if necessary, evict troublemakers.
“Being manager of a place like this is like being mayor of a little city,” he said. “You find the fine line to keep as many people happy as you can.”
The campground is owned by Diversified Investments, a holding company that owns seven other campgrounds in Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“The most important thing is to be consistent. If I tell one person one thing, I have to tell everyone the same thing,” he said. “I encourage people to settle their differences on their own because they might not like my decision.”
The campground’s sense of community is its biggest selling point — and an occasional source of friction. Jordan said he denied one camper’s request to erect a fence around a high-end park model trailer. But Jordan did not object when the owner extended his woodpile in a neat semi-square around his lot to keep neighbors from taking a shortcut across his yard.
Employees said the campground is a welcoming place to work.
“A lot of families come year after year, so you get to know all the kids. Everyone is really easygoing and friendly,” Curtin said.
Jordan gives specially made tokens to the campground’s children that read, “I was caught being good” when he or other employees see them doing good deeds, such as picking up litter. The child with the most tokens at the end of the season gets a cash award.
Since taking over management two years ago, Jordan has worked on expanding the campground’s activities.
The park reduced its cabin rates for 2012 to ensure higher occupancy this year, he said. It’s a trick he learned from a career spent in the hospitality industry in which hotels will offer discounted rates to draw customers.
“The more people you have, the better you’ll do,” he said.
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